- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

China is becoming America's most serious adversary and rival. Economically and militarily it is far from being a great power. The economic and military modernization of China is still in its early stages, but China promises to replace the Soviet Union as America's primary strategic rival. The point is not how, but when China will become a full-blown economic and military power of significant influence. It certainly will have its impact on America's Pacific and Asiatic strategy.

It is obvious that both Democrats and Republicans are aware of China's potential and have made China a serious American strategic interest. The Clinton administration unsuccessfully tried a policy of strategic partnership that did not last very long, collapsing after China's major violations of human rights and its aggressive language on Taiwan. The Democrats still opt for the status quo, accepting the one-China policy with a vague warning about Chinese threats toward Taiwan. The real debate over the future of American relations with China is taking place in the Republican Party, its congressional leadership, and now among the Bush national security advisers.

According to The Washington Post of Aug. 22, a backstage struggle over China policy "broke into the open during the Republican Party platform drafting." Congressional Republicans have a radical attitude toward the PRC, which they perceive as an oppressive totalitarian dictatorship, while they view Taiwan as a striving, successful democratic and capitalist state. In fact, several of the radical Republicans would like to remove any reference to the one-China policy, the standard American China policy since the 1970s.

The more realistic and moderate Republicans are led by Condoleezza Rice and her Harvard colleague, Robert Blackwill, who is responsible for the Harvard training of intelligence agents of the People's Liberation Army. Mr. Blackwill acknowledges the existence of the one-China policy without endorsing it. Miss Rice is apparently indifferent to China's nuclear development, which she claims is no threat. Miss Rice and Mr. Blackwill are battling the radical Republicans of Congress by accepting China as a major nuclear power in Asia "and seeking to diffuse any threat through diplomacy."

The real question to ask is if China is another expansive, aggressive Soviet Union. We don't know. It will be resolved in the ongoing domestic struggle between the reactionaries and the modernizers. Ted Galen Carpenter, co-editor of "China's Future: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat?" (Cato Institute, 2000), offers some very refreshing andrealistic analyses of U.S. policy toward the PRC. In his view much of U.S. policy has been stereotyped, confused and lacked consistency. According to Mr. Carpenter, the PRC is not a messianic political force; it is not a Nazi Germany or a Soviet Union, with ideological, expansionist orientations. Even if it is still mired in Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology, the economic capitalist aspirations of China far surpass its ideological commitments, however strong they are.

From Mr. Carpenter's point of view, China is a rising conventional great power and not a malignantly expansionist state. I doubt whether many of us will subscribe to this view. However, it demonstrates that modernization far surpasses strong Maoist inclinations.

We may not again see a Cultural Revolution or a Tiananmen Square massacre, but oppression and denial of human and minority rights are significant Chinese commitments.

When we come to the question of Taiwan, Mr. Carpenter feels Taiwanese autonomy is certainly desirable but does not constitute an interest sufficient for the United States to go to war against a nuclear-armed power. In my view, Taiwan's autonomy is still part and parcel of America's PRC policy. The defense of democratic and capitalist countries Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India is of great American interest and can ipso facto become intrinsically an American national interest. The logic of splitting Taiwan from the PRC is sound, but I do not know if it is realistic.

I certainly subscribe to Mr. Carpenter's view of a prudent and sustainable U.S. policy toward the PRC and that the United States should define its strategic interests in regional terms, i.e. establishing closer relationships with such significant rising Asian powers as democratic India and, obviously, Japan. I totally subscribe to the idea that the United States should encourage and create incentives for other regional powers as mentioned above to counterbalance the PRC.

The Chinese-American relationship is still in flux. There is no clear-cut and reliable assessment of China's real intentions for the use of its power. Much more must be elaborated, analyzed and made clear before we can establish a strategic assessment of how to handle China. This issue will not be resolved by contending Republicans, status quo Democrats, or even non-ideological realists like Mr. Carpenter. Trial and error based on the evolution of the appropriate model for China is indeed in place. Merle Goldman and Andrew J. Nathan, in a recently published Historical Perspective on Contemporary East Asia (Harvard, 2000), offer a most interesting analysis of the type of appropriate models from 1949 to now.

Moving from the Soviet model to the Maoist and its Cultural Revolution are not encouraging, but the post-Mao reforms from 1978 to the present, "with Chinese characteristics" and the Den Xiao-ping and Jiang Zemin reforms, represent a turn about from the reactionary Stalinist-Maoist model. Even a declining Maoist ideology does not guarantee that the move from the anachronistic and rigid models to a more flexible one promises a China disaffected from old Maoism. Don't expect China to become a democratic state; be cautious in defining it as a non-revisionist power. The ideological poison is still alive underneath the modernization revolution, which does not guarantee an end to the ideological struggle between doctrinaires and reformers.

American policy toward China should not be based on the balance of power realpolitik policies of China, but by the ways in which the contending forces resolve their unresolved dispute.

The Leninist policy of one step forward, two steps backward should not be dismissed as a most significant factor in the U.S. relationship with the PRC into the 21st century era. A revisionist China may still be the outcome of a domestic struggle for power between the reactionaries and the modernizers.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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