Skip to comments.Our Ambivalent China Policy
Posted on 07/06/2002 5:17:58 AM PDT by Pokey78
Hoping to leave well enough alone is shortsighted.
SEPTEMBER 11 has affected American policy far beyond the Middle East. In the Asia-Pacific theater, in particular, the attacks and their aftermath have created a new dynamic that may work to the advantage of the United States in its competition with China for regional leadership. What remains to be seen is whether the Bush administration will take full advantage of this new situation.
To begin with, it's important to be clear about what has actually happened in the region since September11. First, Japan took the unprecedented step of authorizing its military to operate outside its surrounding waters in order to assist U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. While this decision was viewed in Washington as a sign that Japan might be willing to start assuming the obligations of a normal great power, it surprised and shook the Chinese leadership.
Beijing counts on Tokyo's docility in security affairs, and the last thing it wanted to contemplate was Japan's shaking off its "pacific" past. By contrast, just before the 2000 election in the United States, a government-sponsored study co-chaired by Richard Armitage, now deputy secretary of state, had urged that the United States encourage Japan to do precisely that. Beijing was bound to wonder whether Japan's participation in Afghanistan was the first step toward its becoming America's "Pacific Britain."
Next, China's extensive effort over the past few years to create an anti-hegemonic bloc--that is, an anti-U.S. bloc--blew apart. Within days of September 11, Moscow had cast its lot with Washington, as did the various "stans" of Asia, including Beijing's longtime friend Pakistan. The United States now had troops and bases at China's backdoor. Add to this the new military-to-military ties between the United States and the Philippines, and the growing cooperation between Washington and New Delhi, and Chinese strategic thinkers had to wonder whether America's war on terrorism wasn't just an excuse to tighten the security noose around Beijing's neck.
Then, of course, there is the Bush Doctrine itself, a doctrine that sees the character of regimes as the critical factor in determining state behavior. The "axis of evil"--notably Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, all on friendly terms with China--consists of governments that cannot be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. Hence, changing these regimes becomes a strategic imperative.
Conversely, the Bush Doctrine puts a premium on working with, depending on, and expanding the realm of liberal democratic states. On his trip to Asia in February, the president made clear what his new emphasis would mean for the region. First, he indicated that his vision "for the security of the Asia-Pacific region" was tied to the "fellowship of free Pacific nations." Second, he reaffirmed America's "commitments to the people of Taiwan." And, third, he pointedly rejected the idea that Western-style liberties had no relevance to China's future, arguing instead that the United States would continue to challenge China's rule in the name of the "universal values that gave our nation birth." None of this was good news to Beijing.
Yet, apart from some early rhetorical blasts, Beijing's reaction has been relatively restrained. It's hard to say exactly why, given the closed character of China's government, but the most obvious explanation is that Beijing is preoccupied with domestic issues--especially a change in leadership at this fall's Communist party conference, and the difficult economic and social challenges posed by China's admission to the World Trade Organization. Moreover, with the 2008 Olympics on Beijing's plate, China's leaders are probably reluctant to do anything that might cause the international community to question that decision or keep their athletes at home, as the United States did in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But for whatever reasons, it appears that Beijing wants to avoid for the time being a serious confrontation with the United States.
As for how Washington in turn should respond, it's clear that the foreign policy bureaucracy, most Sinologists, and quite a few senior policymakers are content to leave well enough alone. Their goal will be to avoid giving China any reason to reverse its present moderation. They may even favor putting on the back burner plans to upgrade military ties with Taiwan or expand defense cooperation among our democratic allies in the Pacific in order to reassure China that we have no intention of pushing our advantage.
And there is evidence, in fact, that this is where U.S. policy is headed. For one thing, the administration has been sitting on the Pentagon's congressionally mandated report on the Chinese military. Although the report has been finished for some time, it has been buried because it makes a convincing case that China's military sees the United States as its primary foe and that China's growing capabilities pose a real threat to the region's peace and stability.
Then there is the recent statement by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on his May trip to the region in which he poured cold water on the idea of creating new security arrangements among the democratic states of Asia. Despite the fact that President Bush spoke during his campaign of working "toward a day when the fellowship of free Pacific nations is as strong and united as our Atlantic partnership," Wolfowitz told reporters that he didn't think this was "possible in Asia or even probably at this stage desirable."
Those who support soft-pedaling our response to China's military build-up and putting on hold policy initiatives that might cause consternation in Beijing argue that, given all its current and imminent preoccupations (like Iraq), Washington doesn't need another arena for dispute. Moreover, there is the underlying problem of deciphering Chinese intentions. As Sinologists have pointed out over the years, the current Chinese regime's legitimacy rests on its ability not only to promote economic growth but also to protect the country's honor. But "national honor" is a slippery concept, and predictions about what will offend, and hence trigger a response, are at best educated guesses. As Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment has recently written, we do "not know where all of Beijing's internal lines in the sand lie; indeed, the Chinese themselves may not know."
Of course, if this view becomes the basis for U.S. policy toward China, it can only produce paralysis. Everything becomes a potential source of conflict except steps to appease Beijing. Nor will such a policy succeed in preventing crisis. Once China's leaders catch on to what is guiding Washington--as they did with the Clinton administration--their expectations about Taiwan and their own place in the region will only grow. This will lead China, sooner or later, to take some step that requires a firm, perhaps military, response from Washington.
Furthermore, whatever moderation China is exhibiting on the diplomatic front, it continues headlong in its effort to undermine America's security guarantees in the region. Chinese military spending leapt more than 17 percent this year. And within the past two weeks, press accounts have had Beijing buying eight more Kilo-class Russian submarines--this in addition to the four already acquired--and testing Russian-made air-to-air missiles (AA-12) that could significantly increase Chinese air combat capabilities. This comes on top of the PLA's previous purchases of state-of-the-art Russian destroyers, supersonic cruise missiles, antiaircraft missiles, and scores of new fighter-bombers. And Beijing continues to add to the hundreds of medium- and intermediate-range missiles capable of hitting Taiwan and other neighbors already in its deployed arsenal. The overall picture is that of a leadership in a hurry to change the military balance in East Asia.
These acquisitions do not go unnoticed by our friends in the region. Privately, our friends and allies are wondering whether we intend to meet the challenge. Indeed, given our modest response to date, it shouldn't come as a shock that a debate has begun in Japan over whether Japan should acquire nuclear arms of its own.
The truth is that the United States can put off competition with China only so long. At the end of the day, China's ambitions make a contest inevitable. For that reason, the United States should be taking advantage of China's current preoccupation with its internal affairs to strengthen our hand in the region. Washington should so conduct relations as to leave no room for the Chinese to doubt that the United States is able and willing to turn aside any challenge they pose.
This means, among other things, working more aggressively with Taiwan to improve its defenses. The United States also needs to improve its own military capabilities by buying the right new systems to project power over the Pacific theater's vast spaces and by acquiring the additional basing rights needed to ensure access in times of crisis. Finally, the administration should follow through on the president's idea of creating a new security framework that integrates the democratic states of the Asia-Pacific theater. China will see this as a challenge. But once in place, it will reassure our allies, strengthen deterrence, and help the young democracies of the region stay the course.
At the moment, it's not clear which strategic path the administration will choose. The "let well enough alone" school has plenty of supporters. Given the pressures of the moment, this is not surprising. But it is shortsighted. Beijing shows no sign of slowing its military modernization, and sometime soon--perhaps when the leadership shuffle has been settled--China's ambitions toward Taiwan and the region will aggressively resurface. At that point, we may well be kicking ourselves for not having taken advantage of the present opportunity to shore up security in a region of vital interest.
Gary Schmitt is executive director at the Project for the New American Century.
Moreover, China will grow regardless of anyone's efforts to contain it. The US could station troops all around China's periphery, but it won't stop any American from shopping at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, or Best Buy anytime soon. Economics runs the world, and I'm sure even the US soldiers in Afghanistan are using laptops more than 50% of whose components were made in China. For the next several decades at least, China will be producing laptops and practically everything else for US consumers.
As we speak, American, Japanese, Taiwanese, etc. investors are pouring billions of dollars into China. These investors hope not only to exploit China's cheap labor costs but also access China's humongous market. Coke's CEO predicts that by 2020, Coke will be selling more Coke in China than in America itself. You can say the same for almost any other large US company. This is the nature of economic globalization. The US market is already saturated so US companies have to expand abroad. At that time, what is America going to do? Go to war with the country which is the largest market for the Fortune 500? The US would just be shooting itself in the foot. America's own economy would tank.