U.S.-China Relations-Opportunities, Risks, and the Taiwan Issue

By Bickford, Thomas J. | Foreign Policy in Focus, August 2005 | Go to article overview
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U.S.-China Relations-Opportunities, Risks, and the Taiwan Issue


Bickford, Thomas J., Foreign Policy in Focus


Key Points

* China is primarily interested in concentrating on trade and economic development and therefore wants an international environment conducive to continued economic growth.

* Even with recent defense budget increases, China's ability to project power beyond its borders will be extremely limited for a long time to come.

* There is a real risk of conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan, and U.S. policy needs to be aimed at avoiding such a conflict.

Introduction

In many respects there has been a marked improvement in U.S.-China relations since the EP-3 spy plane incident of April 2001. The Bush administration views China as an important partner in the Six-Party Talks with North Korea, and the United States and China share an interest in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. The Bush administration also sees China as a strategic partner in the global war on terror. For example, China has recently joined the U.S. Container Security Initiative, and starting this summer, China and the United States will begin periodic senior-level dialogues on global issues of mutual concern. The Pentagon has even expanded its program of military-to-military contacts and exchanges between Chinese and U.S. military academies in a sharp reversal of the policy of four years ago. Economic relations have expanded greatly since China joined the World Trade Organization, and despite occasional trade tensions, most U.S. economists and businesspeople regard economic ties as mutually beneficial and rewarding.

However, some Americans view the rise of China as a long-term economic and security concern. As its military capabilities improve, China is increasingly seen as a threat to Taiwan and other U.S. interests. For example, the Pentagon worries that China may be beginning to acquire the means to project power beyond its immediate borders. Economic anxieties about loss of jobs and competition from China are also increasingly linked to political and security issues. China is seen as competing for economic and political influence in Latin America and elsewhere. Even business mergers can have a security aspect; the recent controversy over the proposed purchase of Unocal by a Chinese company is a case in point. There is, therefore, an interesting paradox in U.S. views of China; relations have never been better, yet the two countries could go to war at any time.

In a sense, both views are correct. China's military power is growing, and there is a very real risk of conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan. On the other hand, there are good reasons to believe that a stronger, more prosperous China may, as the annual Pentagon report states, "choose a pathway of peaceful integration and benign competition.

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