- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2011

There are two schools of thought about the future of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

The first is that the growing communist state will do anything to become the world’s preeminent power, including use its military - the world’s largest - to forcefully get its way. Beijing intends to dominate Asia, and it plans to push the United States aside to become the regional hegemon.

The second, a more skeptical crowd, thinks China has too many challenges to pose a serious threat to America. In other words, don’t worry about another Cold War any time soon.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld isn’t losing sleep over the Middle Kingdom.

“I read all this stuff about China like it’s 40-feet high,” he said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Convention cruise in Alaska. “China’s got troubles.”

These include border problems with Russia, India and Vietnam; arguments over territorial waters with just about every nation in the area; a national government that is junior partner to the politicized People’s Liberation Army (PLA); massive wealth disparity, especially between richer coastal cities and poorer rural areas in the interior; ethnic strife; massive pollution; resource shortages; a one-child policy leading to a graying population; and debilitating corruption at huge state-owned corporations.

“They are going to have to bust them up at some point,” Mr. Rumsfeld predicted about the government-run companies. “You’re going to end up with tens of thousands of people out of work, and they’re going to have civil disorder and disruptions.”

The regime responds to protests with an iron fist, a policy that’s unlikely to change given that hardliners have even more power today than when tanks were ordered into Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“The only thing I really worry about with China is I don’t understand the relationship between the political leadership - the Communist Party leadership - and the PLA,” he said. “I don’t know what [the PLA‘s] influence is or who’s in charge of the place. It’s kind of a mystery to me.”

A scary tendency toward belligerence was exposed in 2001 when the PLA forced down an American EP-3 reconnaissance plane off the China coast. “[President] Jiang Zemin was in South America, and it looked like the PLA was in charge,” Mr. Rumsfeld recalled. “Their behavior was absolutely outrageous. Our plane had to land on Hainan Island. We had no choice. They dismembered the aircraft. They took [our troops] prisoners. They kept them there for a long time.”

The PRC’s ascent should be seen as a warning about the strategic dangers of U.S. weakness. On the global stage, Beijing is “going to be reaching out and trying to assert themselves, to be sure. But if we stay strong, that’s a deterrent,” the former defense secretary advised. “That will moderate their behavior.”

Rummy does believe America can learn a thing or two from our strategic competitor across the Pacific. “They are long-range thinkers. They’re not short timers like we are,” he laments. “We have to keep our eye on them and we have to stay strong. But if we behave well, I think it’s probably manageable.” As always, America’s destiny is in our own hands. Red China won’t supplant U.S. power unless our nation throws in the towel.

Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.