|WORLD POLICY JOURNAL
CODA: Volume XVI, No3, FALL 1999
China and America–The Way We Live Now
At best, relations between China and the United States are starting to resemble relations between France and America in the period since 1940. There is a zigzag effect: things worsen between the two nations, often through miscalculation and misunderstanding, and then, because neither government wants a serious break, efforts are made to patch things up. This may well prove to be the pattern of Chinese-American relations well into the twenty-first century, and if so, leaders of both countries will have to learn to live with it. On the other hand, let us not forget that underlying the rhetoric of French-American disagreements is an acknowledgment that France is our oldest ally, that we probably could not have won the Revolutionary War without its help, and that our fundamental interests have only rarely clashed.
China is a different case. We have exploited it economically and fought a proxy war with it in Korea. After President Nixon’s decision to seek a rapprochement with Beijing in the early 1970s, our policies toward mainland China have been singularly uneven, blowing hot or cold often in reaction to U.S. domestic pressures. During the first Clinton administration, U.S. policymakers sharply criticized the Chinese leadership for its violations of human rights; then, with Madeleine Albright as secretary of state, Washington began to pursue a far more consistent policy of engagement.
During a recent visit to China, where I met with a number of academics and government officials, I nonetheless became convinced that Chinese-American relations are headed into dangerous waters, with potentially devastating consequences for Asian stability and America’s long-term goals in the Far East.1
It is commonly believed that there is a split between the pro-American forces in the Chinese government, which are generally identified with Prime Minister Zhu Ronghi, and others who are closely aligned with the military and who are willing to risk worsening relations with America if Washington supports Taiwanese calls for independence or steps up its criticisms of China’s abuse of human rights. Zhu’s visit to the United States earlier this year was a near disaster. He arrived expecting support from President Clinton on China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization. When the president caved in to domestic pressures, especially from labor unions, and reversed himself on this issue, it was a public humiliation for Zhu, who nonetheless campaigned for his cause across the United States. By the end of the Zhu’s trip, Clinton had reversed himself again, but the Chinese-American relationship was badly tarnished. At home, Zhu came under severe criticism for having made a number of concessions to allow American goods into China in order to get U.S. backing for China’s bid for WTO membership, and now he seemed a dupe.
A few months later, the Cox Committee of the House of Representatives reported that, over a two-decade period, Chinese spies had stolen secrets for missiles, military weaponry, and nuclear warhead technology from U.S. weapons labs; this only exacerbated the tensions in the already frayed relationship. Beijing hotly denied the spying charges. And according to American physicist Wolfgang Panofsky, even if the Chinese nuclear arsenal had been augmented by espionage, this would not affect the strategic balance. China had not deployed many of the weapons it was accused of having stolen. Moreover, Beijing had embraced a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and had adhered to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.2 Nonetheless, on August 2, 1999, Beijing announced that it had test-launched a new long-range missile, with a range of about 5,000 miles, capable of reaching the United States.3
A still further deterioration in the relationship came with the May 7 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, which was viewed by the Chinese as a deliberate act of intimidation. The admission by the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, that this was simply a blunder due to a mid-level analyst relying on an outdated map, was, not surprisingly, seen as disingenuous. If only the CIA were as powerful and competent as foreigners believed, Beijing might have been able to accept Washington’s apology gracefully. But such is the penalty for being a hegemon, albeit, in Clinton’s and Albright’s eyes, a benign one; the $4.5 million that Washington is now prepared to pay in compensation for the bombing of the embassy will not change that perception.
The Role of the Client-State
Should Lee persist in his policy, and especially if he were to succeed in winning a referendum calling for full sovereignty for Taiwan, the military faction in Beijing would doubtless press for a military response. This could involve a counterresponse by America, which, at the very least, would leave the U.S.-China relationship in shreds.
The Chinese, however, do not have the naval capability to mount an amphibious assault on Taiwan; and a naval blockade could result in a head-on collision with foreign shipping. A recent Pentagon report stated that any full-scale amphibious invasion that China might launch across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait would face horrific obstacles. Less polite analysts have predicted that it would end up as a ?million-man swim.?4 Beijing might give the order to seize one of the small islands adjacent to China’s southern coast, Kinmen and Matsu,that are controlled by Taiwan. But this would also lead to trouble because, by statute, the United States cannot deny Taiwan military aid to defend itself, though it could certainly try to delay providing it as long as possible. Given the limited military capabilities on both sides, it is more likely that the Chinese leadership would insist on economic sanctions, for example, shutting down Taiwanese companies that supported Lee Teng-hui’s position.
What the United States can do, aside from Albright’s forthright statement reiterating American support for the one-China policy after meeting with the Chinese foreign minister in Singapore in July, is to appeal to Taiwanese public opinion, which would doubtless be fearful of being deserted by Washington, irrespective of any formal commitment made to the contrary. If Lee Teng-hui has attempted the time-honored method of a small client-state to involve its protector in supporting policies the protector does not endorse, the Clinton administration appears to be doing everything it can to make sure Taiwan understands that Washington will not play the role Taipei has assigned it.
As a senior Chinese analyst put it to me, one thing is sure: the central question for any Chinese leader is how history will judge him. Has he stood up to foreign invasion? Has he given up any territory that rightfully belongs to China? The permanent loss of Taiwan would certainly doom any leader politically and historically. The territorial integrity of China is far more important than the economic interests that Taiwan now has on the mainland. Should Taiwan insist on sovereignty, the Chinese leadership would have to take military action, no matter what the cost. The Chinese leaders do not forget Mao’s decision to intervene in Korea in 1950, when the United States was already committed to defending the peninsula with ground troops. If Washington shows any waffling in its defense of the one-China policy, the pro-American faction?as the Chinese themselves call it?will almost surely be undermined. As another senior Chinese analyst pointed out, Washington must make it clear to both Beijing and Taipei what actions it is prepared to take with respect to Taiwan. Ambiguity will only serve to heighten the possibility of conflict and the demise of the pro-American faction.
A Dangerous World
From all reports, Falun Gong, which may have attracted more than two million followers, advocates a mixture of traditional qigong breathing exercises and meditation, and contains elements of Buddhism and Taoism. Its leader, Li Hongzhi, lives in New York City, and, according to the Chinese government, has told members of the sect that the Falun Gong methods can make it possible for them to cure themselves of disease. The government campaign to stamp out the sect involves a nationwide political effort among regional Communist Party chiefs to force the local Falun Gong leaders to denounce the sect; and in late August, the Chinese authorities announced that they intended to prosecute the sect’s leaders. By destroying the central core, Beijing thus hopes to eradicate the whole movement.
The extreme reaction by the government can only be explained by its fear of any separatist movement. In a country where communist ideology is increasingly irrelevant, there appears to be a spiritual emptiness in many peoples’s lives that can hardly be filled by a blind worship of consumerism. The late Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation that to get rich is glorious can also ring hollow in a nation of 1.3 billion in which the disparities between rich and poor are increasing, where corruption is rampant, and unemployment is rising as state-centered industries give way to a more market-driven economy.
Both internally and externally, then, the Chinese leaders look out on an increasingly dangerous world: the assertions by the Taiwanese president that things cannot remain as they are, the contradictory signals often emanating from Washington, the testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, the announced intention of the United States to build a limited antimissile defense system in the Western Pacific, the slowing of China’s phenomenal 10 percent economic growth rate, and now the existence of a religious cult that dares to openly challenge the Beijing leadership?all this makes the dawn of the millennium more threatening than promising. China seems in the year 2000 a nation adrift in a sea of troubles.
2. See Patrick Tyler, “Who’s Afraid of China?” New York Times Magazine, August 1, 1999. Tyler reports that Panofsky, former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator, found the Cox Committee’s report ?so full of false assumptions, unsubstantiated claims and errors, that it could not be a useful reference for anyone studying the Chinese military, as he has been doing for decades.?
3. Seth Faison, “In Unusual Announcement, China Tells of a Missile Test,” New York Times, August 3, 1999.
4. See the International Herald Tribune, July 28, 1999.