The Riddle of U.S.-China Relations

Article excerpt

The title of this intelligent new assessment of China-U.S. relations says it all. "The Coming Conflict with China" offers no hopeful question mark at the end of the title to suggest that the conflict may not arise.

The authors, Richard Bernstein, a former Beijing bureau chief of Time magazine who is now a book reviewer for the New York Times, and Ross H. Munro, former Beijing bureau chief for the Toronto Globe and Mail, have written an interesting study that sets about explaining what China is all about and how the United States can better understand it. The result is a convincing portrait of a country and culture that is largely misunderstood and often underestimated. The authors also offer a series of suggested policy adjustments towards China, which are by turns useful and downright frustrating.

The question of U.S.-China relations resembles a riddle more than anything else. Economically, relations between the two countries are mutually beneficial but at present lopsided in favor of China, a situation the authors insist needs to be corrected, and fast.

Militarily, the United States has nothing to worry about, for the moment. China has a long way to go before it will be able to compete with U.S. military force or technology. As the authors warn, though, China has lately been shopping for weapons at a serious pace, and the acquisition of longer-range missiles, which could potentially reach U.S. soil, poses a threat that cannot be ignored. Also, China intends to increase the size and scope of its navy, which should be raising warning flags at the Pentagon and the White House.

The authors make no bones about the question of a hegemonic power in Asia. But does China seek to become the sole arbiter of power in Asia? According to Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Munro, the answer is clearly affirmative. "China's historic sense of itself, its basic material and human conditions, and its own assessment of its national interest combine to make a Chinese move toward Asian hegemony virtually inevitable," they write.

The United States, therefore, must be vigilant in monitoring China's military development as well as maintaining and possibly increasing the U.S. military presence around Japan, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The authors' view falls between the two positions of containment and engagement. According to them, both policies pose serious problems. Containment, for the most part, is undesirable because the U.S. cannot close itself off to Chinese markets. Engagement, as practiced recently by the Clinton administration, appears confused and ineffective. Once President Clinton decided that the U.S.-China economic relationship would not be linked to China's human rights record, criticisms of Chinese abuses became exercises in futility.

There is a serious lack of understanding among some U.S. analysts about what China is really like, and this, the authors argue, has led to mistakes in U. …