March 1, 1996
Alan W. Dowd
The headlines of the last 12 months could have been taken straight from the most frigid days of the Cold War:
Cuban MiGs down unarmed civilian aircraft...Chinese arms build-up worries US...President weighs options against Cuba...Chinese seize Philippine island...US-China relations at lowest point...Cuban navy rams, sinks refugee boats...Chinese conduct missile tests near Taiwan...Beijing threatens invasion of Taiwan...
These recent events remind us of the brutal, lawless nature of authoritarian-communism, providing a much needed reality check to an inattentive public and a gullible government. If the US fails to respond in a substantive manner to this behavior (especially China’s), the second cold war––which Beijing is already fighting––will end in a much less peaceful manner than the first.
At the onset of this new cold war, it is important to note the differences between China and Cuba. Fidel Castro’s reckless attacks on civilian aircraft and boats are signs of impatience. His temper is growing short; his life is ending, and so is his revolution. Like Beijing, Fidel Castro’s government is defiantly resisting the realities and results of Cold War I. But unlike the aging Chinese leadership, Castro does not possess the human, territorial, economic, technological, or military resources to nullify or reverse––even if partially or temporarily––the outcomes of the first cold war.
Hence, while Cuba’s behavior serves as a graphic reminder of authoritarianism’s natural byproducts, it is little more than a sideshow to the act China has begun at center stage of international politics.
Since 1989, China has grown increasingly bold in its hostility toward the rest of the world. Its hostile behavior crescendoed in March as Taiwan held the first democratic elections in the 5000 year history of the Chinese people. Highlighted by missile barrages, feigned invasions, and mock blockades, China rattled its sabres for nearly two weeks to show its displeasure with the Taiwanese.
But Beijing’s war games would not drown out the voice of Taiwan. Nor will they deter President Lee Teng-hui from moving his country along the path of independence and full sovereignty.
In the wake of Beijing’s violent temper tantrum in the Taiwan Straits, the White House and other Western governments may finally be taking notice of the menace that China has become.
But this episode was only the latest in a series of warning signals that should have re-calibrated America’s China policy long ago.
China is expanding its military faster than any nation in the region or the world. From 1989 to 1994, Beijing nearly doubled its military spending, purchasing not only new warplanes, tanks, and missiles but entire factories and design teams from Russia and Europe.
With their economy booming, the Chinese are cashing in at the global weapons bazaar, purchasing Patriot anti-missile technology from Israel and long-range bombers from Russia; acquiring mid-air refueling technology from Pakistan; sharing missile and nuclear technology with Iran and Algeria; and selling their military leftovers to a host of other unsavory governments.
The Chinese leadership is committed to forging a navy to match its land forces in size and strength. Within a few years, China’s navy will no longer be a coastal defense force. Scores of deep-water submarines are being purchased. An aircraft carrier or two will soon be added to Beijing’s swelling naval arsenal. Missile-laden cruisers and frigates have already been sent to sea. Some of them participated in Beijing’s intimidation of Taiwan.
Once China’s modernization ends, expansion will begin in earnest. The Taiwan episode is only a symptom of this much wider, long-term problem of Chinese expansion and domination of the Asia-Pacific region.
It has been said that the decline of empires can radically destabilize the international order. So too can the rise of new empires. Consider how the 20th century was shaped and scarred by the ascension of Japan, Germany, and the USSR. China’s quest for empire promises to be just as significant. China is running out of oil and will be a net oil importer, barring acquisition of new territory, perhaps by 2000. Beijing has already built new naval and air bases in both the Philippine Sea and the far north Indian Ocean to guarantee its presence in these oil-rich waters.
China claims 70% of the South China Sea, though most of those waters lie far beyond China’s rightful possessions. China covets this region not only because it is rich in oil and other resources but also because it provides a vast buffer zone from the West.
Perhaps most alarming is the fact that China enters this expansionist-militarist phase with its eyes wide-open. State-run news agencies and even official government statements matter-of-factly observe that a new cold war with the US is coming, if not already underway. The Chinese sense that Washington lacks the will or ability to stop them. Mr. Clinton’s silence during the Taiwan crisis certainly gives credence to such thinking.
At home, China continues to brutalize its people. The Sinophiles’ mantra that trade will enable human rights to take root in China has been totally discredited.
The US has engaged China on the economic front for nearly 20 years. Yet grievous human rights violations abound, growing more serious with each act of appeasement. Government task-masters put child laborers to work to churn out $40 billion in cheap exports for America. A human rights group recently heaped criticism on Beijing for allowing thousands of toddlers to starve to death in state-run orphanages. But many Chinese children don’t reach the orphanage. A government-mandated abortion regime eliminates millions each year, mostly baby girls.
Political and religious repression has become the primary function of the Chinese government. The Chinese have abducted dozens of human rights activists. These heroic men and women are often sentenced to summary executions. The unlucky ones are sent to re-education camps.
These are not the actions of a responsible government.
When we step back and consider what the Beijing government does––its vast military build-up, its willingness to bully its neighbors, its constant failure to act as a partner in regional or global challenges, its barbaric treatment of the Chinese people––it becomes apparent that the realities of our relationship with China don’t match the hopes Washington continues to hold for China.
America’s idealistic, shallow China policy must be revamped. The White House must recognize that China’s long-term goals are at odds with America’s.
China is an expansionist state with the means to threaten America and its allies. It is unlikely that China desires war, but as Churchill said of the Soviets at the onset of the first cold war, "they desire the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power." Haphazard responses and timidity did not deter the Soviets, nor will they stop the Chinese.
The Chinese communists, like their Soviet forefathers, understand and admire nothing more than strength. On that principle, Churchill outlined the blueprints of the West’s victory in Cold War I. In the same way, at the brink of the second cold war, Washington should consider a new relationship with China.
A good place to start would be suspending China’s most-favored nation trade status and laying out conditions for its reinstatement. Enhanced human rights observance and more responsible behavior in the arms trade would top the list. The US is the only nation on earth with both the economic might and moral legitimacy to make observance of human rights a cornerstone of its foreign policy. The Chinese people turn to the US for hope not cheap imports and open markets from which their communist masters can profit.
US military and technological capabilities should be used to sabotage and clog China’s pipeline of weapons.
The US should also make its intentions to protect Taiwan a matter of official policy. During this latest Taiwan crisis, the White House followed a policy of "strategic ambiguity," which left both Taiwan and China uncertain of America’s role in the event of war.
If China’s actions improve, a new trade window can be opened and widened with periodic reviews. Perhaps China and Taiwan could be invited to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. With their inclusion, the forum could take on the characteristics of a clearinghouse for regional challenges––linking transparency in military affairs, territorial dispute resolution, resource distribution, and economic stability in an over-arching framework of cooperation. China may be able to channel its assertive energies in a more responsible way in such a forum.
But we are far from that day. It is more likely that Beijing would respond negatively to punitive measures, in which case the US should be prepared to pursue an aggressive deterrent-containment strategy against the Chinese militarists. Plans to open new naval bases in Vietnam should be expedited. A two-China policy should be pursued at the diplomatic level. Relations with Taiwan should be restored, and those with Beijing should be maintained.
The US can contain this cold war as it did the first with strength and resolve––strength to deter threatening behavior, and resolve to punish what it cannot deter. Played out in the Taiwan and Florida straits, act one of this sequel revealed that Washington lacks both the strength to deter and, more ominously, the resolve to punish the undeterred.