New China Strategy Should Spur Democracy

By Gaffney, Frank J.; Ronay, Thor E. | Insight on the News, October 4, 1999 | Go to article overview

New China Strategy Should Spur Democracy

Gaffney, Frank J., Ronay, Thor E., Insight on the News

The time has come for the United States to revisit and substantially revise its policy toward Communist China, as well as Asia, for one overarching reason: Today, the People's Republic of China, or PRC, is vastly stronger, relative to the United States, than it was seven years ago. Unless Washington adopts a significant course correction, this trend seems likely to worsen in the future -- with ominous implications for U.S. security and other interests in Asia.

Even the Clinton Pentagon appears to recognize that the United States and the PRC are on a collision course of China's making. In a February 1999 report to Congress titled Future Military Capabilities and Strategy of the PRC, the Defense Department declared: "The Chinese realize that attaining recognition as the preeminent political power in Asia will require the weakening of U.S. political influence in the region.... Its international political activities and certain of its economic and military policies are designed to achieve the same result."

Against this backdrop, it is astounding that the Clinton administration has pursued policies with regard to arms sales, technology transfers and lax security that actually have enabled China's military capacities to increase far more quickly -- and at far less cost to Beijing -- than otherwise would have been the case. Of particular concern is the fact that this buildup -- which features, notably, improvements to China's strategic- and cruise-missile technology, coupled with China's ongoing proliferation to rogue states such as Iran and North Korea -- is, in the absence of effective Western missile defenses, exposing U.S. troops, allies and citizens to intimidation and attack.

Unfortunately, as Harvard China expert Alistair Iain Johnston has documented, China is not afraid to use force, especially if it can do so quickly and decisively in a manner designed to alter the status quo before an opponent can react. Johnston found that since 1949, the PRC has resorted to violence to resolve foreign-policy conflicts 72 percent of the time (in eight out of 10 crises) a rate much greater than that of the former Soviet Union, to say nothing of democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Even if force is not used by China, its mere threat may be sufficient to achieve the PRC's desired results. Even now, the Chinese have begun to brandish their growing military capabilities to threaten Taiwan and other neighbors and to hint at nuclear attacks on the United States.

These threats are all the more ominous coming at a moment when China is in a period of growing internal political and economic difficulties and uncertain leadership. A regime rounding up millions of grannies, veterans and soul-searching students -- burning their books and holding them under mass arrest in soccer stadiums for nothing more than performing breathing exercises in public spaces -- is not a stable one, let alone one firmly on a glide path toward U.S.-inspired democracy. Far more likely, China's authoritarian government, like others before it, will be compelled by domestic turmoil to engage in xenophobic campaigns at home (for example, the recent sacking of U.S. diplomatic missions in China) and aggressive behavior abroad.

For all these reasons, it is imperative that U.S. policy be informed by realism about where the respective interests and goals of these two nations merge or diverge. Such realism would establish, first and foremost, that this country and the PRC are demonstrably not "strategic partners" -- a fiction adopted by the Clinton team principally to promote its summitry with, and concessions to, the Chinese leadership -- but rather strategic competitors.

In fact, China's current regime is antithetical to virtually every U.S. interest and value; official literature routinely refers to the United States as "the main enemy." If anything, the PRC is exploiting the Clinton delusion of "constructive strategic partnership" to attain maximum advantage from the United States in the military, diplomatic and economic spheres. …

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