China's Global Role - Given Its Population, Resources, and Economic Growth Rates, China Will Be a Great Power by the Middle of This Century

Article excerpt

Are the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United States destined to enter into serious conflict such as a new cold war or possibly a hot war over Taiwan? This seems to be the dominant view in the Bush administration. According to Kenneth Lieberthal, China expert and former National Security Council adviser to the Clinton administration, "the underlying rationale that one sees played out in [the Bush administration's China] policy to this point is very much the China threat caricature."

There are certainly reasons to conclude that China and the United States could find themselves in some form of serious confrontation in the near future. Yet while taking a closer look at national interests and foreign policy trajectories of these two countries, there is no reason to assume that China is a threat to the United States or that the two nations must go to war, hot or cold.

Lieberthal and others worry that the "China as menace" viewpoint may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Aside from the fact that it's factually wrong, the major flaw ... is that the prescription that grows from that mindset assumes that China will be an enemy and therefore almost certainly condemns it to become one," says Lieberthal. "I have felt for a long time that we are quite capable of moving China into a position of hostility with the United States because we are so big and so strong and loom so large. ... Their bottom line will be that they have to protect themselves."

Given China's population, resources, and economic growth rates, there can be no doubt that it is going to be a true great power by the middle of this century. As history bears out with the rise of Prussia-Germany in the late nineteenth century and Japan in the 1930s, how a country uses its newfound power and how it is treated by the existing great powers are extremely important.

As the reigning superpower, the United States has important decisions to make in coming decades regarding how to manage its power. If China believes the United States and the other powers are trying to hold it down, it is likely to become more belligerent and less accountable to international norms.

If China feels it is being treated fairly and accommodated in the international arena, it is likely to be more cooperative and act with greater restraint, having more to lose by shirking a fair system in which its economy can thrive. For these reasons, the course to take in dealing with China in the near future is an important question for U.S. policymakers.

Human rights and trade

China's human rights record is a big sticking point, from the American perspective. Human rights became a major issue in Sino-American relations after the Chinese government suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. President George Bush was criticized for sending secret emissaries to Beijing on two occasions to reassure China's leaders that while offended by the handling of the protests, the United States valued its relations with China.

In the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton accused Bush of coddling dictators. Yet in 1994 he went further than Bush, delinking human rights from the annual vote in Congress on China's Most Favored Nation status (or MFN, now called Normal Trade Relations, or NTR). Congress brought the issue back, however, and has annually debated extension of China's MFN status.

At issue is whether to use MFN status as a lever to require specific improvements in China's human rights record. Thus, if China fails to meet certain conditions, it would cost China's export community millions of dollars in lost revenues.

While the debate will likely be laid to rest with China's accession to the WTO (MFN is granted permanently to all members of the WTO), the debate about how America should treat China in light of its continued human rights violations continues to rage.

Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota), Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), and others argue that China should be isolated until it improves its human rights record, as was the case with South Africa under apartheid. …