To Head off a 'Cold War II,' China and US Try to Warm Up Relations

By Kevin Platt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

To Head off a 'Cold War II,' China and US Try to Warm Up Relations


Kevin Platt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit to Beijing next month is aimed in part at resolving mounting conflicts in Sino-US relations. If left unchecked, current tensions could lead to a second cold war, say American and Chinese analysts.

Misperceptions on each side and a chain reaction of increasingly alarming responses culminated earlier this year when two US aircraft carriers engaged in a virtual showdown with the Chinese military off the coast of Taiwan.

A running battle between the two Pacific Rim giants has caused leaders in both Beijing and Washington to rethink the fundamentals of their ties, the analysts say. Mr. Christopher hopes to defuse tensions over US strategic interests in Asia, Washington's ballooning trade deficit with Beijing, and human rights issues during meetings with Chinese leaders in mid-November, says a Western official. He also plans to set out a tentative schedule for President Jiang Zemin to visit the United States next year, with President Clinton, if reelected, expected to reciprocate by early 1998. Worsening disagreements have led some conservatives in Beijing to accuse Washington of plotting to contain China's growing influence and power, while their American counterparts paint China as a dangerous dragon that threatens Asia. Both sides are fundamentally wrong, says William Overholt, author of "China: The Next Economic Superpower" and the managing director of Asian research at Bankers Trust in Hong Kong. Beijing's war games during Taiwan's first democratic presidential election last spring caused some leaders in Washington to "view China as dangerously aggressive, which was just as inaccurate as China's view that the United States was trying to dismantle it," Mr. Overholt says. China never intended to attack Taiwan, says the banker, and aimed instead to "send a loud clear message to Washington to stop interfering in China's sovereign affairs." China analysts at US think tanks and universities generally agree that the main conflict between the world's present and potential superpowers centers on the status of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province whose separation from the mainland is a legacy of the cold war. The US, in establishing diplomatic ties, recognized Beijing as the legitimate government of one China, and in the 1982 Sino-American joint communique pledged to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan as Beijing pursued peaceful reunification. "There is no question that Washington broke the treaty" in 1992, when President Bush agreed to sell Taiwan up to 150 advanced F-16 jet fighters, says Robert Ross, an associate at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. The breach was widened in June 1995 with the granting of a US visa to Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui. American foreign policy analysts say those actions, along with calls in Congress to revoke China's most-favored-nation trade status, to send an ambassador to Tibet, and to safeguard Hong Kong's political autonomy following its return to Chinese rule in mid-1997, have incensed China. "If you're sitting in Beijing watching these moves, you don't have to reach far to begin to believe that the US is trying to dismantle China," says Overholt. "An equal and opposite paranoia on the part of the US" has brought the world to the "brink of an utterly gratuitous second cold war." The official China Daily warned on Oct. 24 that if a Sino-American cold war breaks out, the effects would be felt worldwide. A senior Chinese official who spoke on condition of anonymity says some hard-liners in Beijing believe that a new cold war has already begun. He says more and more party officials are concluding that "following its success in breaking apart the Soviet Union, the US has set its sights on China." He added that by adopting a confrontational approach, the US is losing any leverage it had to promote peaceful, gradual political change in China.

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