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A New Chinese Century

This column was written by Max Boot.
It seems like only a few months ago that commentators were blithely babbling about how much relations between Beijing and Washington had improved since the start of the Bush administration, which was marred by China's downing of an American EP-3 surveillance plane and the detention of its crew. The conventional wisdom was that the war on terrorism had united the United States and China against a common enemy. This rosy scenario is, unfortunately, being undermined almost daily by Beijing's actions.

Consider what the Chinese Communist leadership has done just in the past year: It passed an "Anti-Secession Law" asserting its legal authority to employ "nonpeaceful means" against Taiwan should the island democracy take any steps toward independence. Along with Russia, it pressured Central Asian republics to kick out U.S. bases being used in the war on terrorism; U.S. forces are now vacating a supply hub in Uzbekistan. In return for this, China has offered no useful assistance whatsoever in the fight against Islamist fanatics. Instead it held its first-ever military exercise with Russia — an exercise transparently focused on combating the United States — and agreed to purchase billions of dollars in Russian military equipment. And it continued its breakneck military buildup, which is focused on the kinds of weapons — especially missiles and submarines — needed to stymie U.S. efforts to protect Taiwan.

It also continued its massive campaign of industrial espionage intended to steal U.S. military and technological secrets. It has made some progress in protecting intellectual property but still tolerates massive copying of proprietary material that costs U.S. companies an estimated $2.6 billion a year.

Moreover, it did not reprimand, much less fire, a major general in the People's Liberation Army who publicly threatened to nuke "hundreds" of U.S. cities if the United States came to Taiwan's defense. It continued cozying up to odious regimes in places like Sudan, Venezuela, and Iran, whose oil it covets. It has also made clear that it will not cooperate in the U.N. Security Council or elsewhere in taking firm steps against nuclear proliferation by Iran and North Korea. Rather than using its considerable leverage on Pyongyang, it has brokered a replay of the 1994 Agreed Framework under which Kim Jong Il gets more foreign aid — including a "civilian nuclear reactor" — in return for the promise, but not the reality, of nuclear disarmament. Beijing also organized demonstrations, which turned into riots, aimed at America's foremost Asian ally, Japan. And, just to rub it in, China has pressed to exclude the United States from an East Asia summit meeting in Malaysia in December.

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To be sure, the blame for greater Sino-American friction does not rest entirely with Beijing. The Bush administration and Congress, at the bidding of domestic protectionist lobbies, have done their best to irritate China through pressure to devalue its currency and limit its exports to the United States. And, despite all these tensions, there are also some signs of cross-Pacific friendship — China did agree this year to devalue its currency slightly and to buy $5 billion worth of aircraft from Boeing rather than its European rival. But there is little doubt that the Sino-American relationship is more strained today than at any time since 2001, the year of the EP-3 incident, mostly because of greater Chinese assertiveness and increased willingness to challenge American "hegemonism."

This is worrisome news on many levels. China, with a population of 1.3 billion people, is the world's most populous country. It also has the world's biggest, if far from the best, armed forces, with over 2.2 million personnel in its active-duty ranks (800,000 more than the United States), as well as the world's second-largest — and fastest-growing — defense budget. Its underlying economic power is rapidly expanding, too. Although most Chinese people remain poor (average per capita income, at $5,600, is lower than in the Dominican Republic), China is already the world's second biggest economy. Its GDP of $7.3 trillion, as measured in purchasing power parity, trails only the United States (at $11.7 trillion), and it is growing much faster. Last year China's economic growth rate was 9.1 percent, more than twice the U.S. rate of 4.4 percent. At this pace, China will overtake the U.S. economy in a little over a decade. There are good reasons to think that China's breakneck economic growth will not last forever: Lawlessness, lack of secure property rights, endemic corruption, social unrest, resource shortages, and other problems may well sabotage its long-term prospects. But even now China is a formidable competitor to the United States — indeed, it is the only Great Power threat on the horizon.

History, alas, teaches that it is difficult if not impossible to integrate peacefully a major illiberal challenger into an international system it did not design and does not control. Just ask the British, who 100 years ago occupied the strategic niche that America fills today — a global hegemon threatened by powerful upstarts. In America's case the rival is China; in Britain's it was Germany and Japan. The British tried confrontation with Germany (symbolized by the 1904 Anglo-French Entente Cordiale and an Anglo-German naval arms race) and appeasement with Japan (the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance and considerable aid for the Imperial Japanese Navy until the late 1920s). Neither policy worked, and the result was two of the most horrific wars in history. The United States did a little better in managing the rise of the Soviet Union, but the Cold War still resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Americans in Korea and Vietnam.

Chinese apologists will huffily reply that their country has nothing in common with Germany, Japan, or the Soviet Union. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Zheng Bijian, a veteran Communist party apparatchik with close ties to President Hu Jintao, assures us: "China will not follow the path of Germany leading up to World War I or those of Germany and Japan leading up to World War II, when these countries violently plundered resources and pursued hegemony. Neither will China follow the path of the great powers vying for global domination in the Cold War. Instead China will transcend ideological differences to strive for peace, development, and cooperation with all countries in the world."

It's true that China is not actively acquiring colonies (at least not since the occupation of Tibet in 1951) or fighting other countries (at least not since the invasion of Vietnam in 1979). But neither are its actions as benign as Zheng would have it. Certainly it would come as news to Japan — whose territorial waters were violated last fall by a Chinese submarine and some of whose businesses were attacked this spring by Chinese mobs — that China strives for peace and "cooperation with all countries." It will come as even greater news to Taiwan, which has been on the receiving end of blood-curdling threats of "annihilation" should it ever dare to declare its independence — threats backed up by the presence of 500-550 short-range ballistic missiles deployed across the Taiwan Strait, with 75 new ones added every year. And, finally, it will come as news to the military and political architects of Chinese strategy who consider the United States to be the "main enemy," according to a Chinese diplomat who recently defected in Australia.

China may not be seeking global domination — at least not yet — but it is definitely seeking regional domination. And the region it is trying to dominate will be as important, politically, militarily, and economically, to the rest of the world in this century as Europe was in the last one.

That does not mean that war is inevitable by any stretch of the imagination, but it does mean that we need to make a greater effort to nudge China off its long-term collision course with the United States. As the failure of British policy toward Germany and Japan indicates, there is no guarantee that any U.S. policy will succeed in making this awakening dragon mind its manners. But we have to try. Since we can't be sure any particular policy will work, the safest course would seem to be to try a bit of everything — economic integration, diplomatic containment, military deterrence, and internal subversion. Unfortunately, we're not doing a very good job on any of these fronts right now.

The West has been most successful in fostering China's economic integration through membership in the World Trade Organization and increasing levels of trade and investment. But protectionist lobbies seem intent on sabotaging these gains through shrill harping on such purported Chinese sins as having a strong currency and selling too many bras to American women. The Bush administration first bludgeoned Beijing into devaluing the yuan and now (along with the European Union) has restricted Chinese textile imports.

It may make sense to use economic leverage to influence Chinese behavior, but it should be done in pursuit of such vital aims as ending the North Korean nuclear program — not in aid of the hopeless American textile industry. Chinese imports (that is, goods that American consumers want to buy) are no threat to the United States, any more than Japanese imports were in the 1980s. Harping on our current trade deficit with China will prove no more productive than harping on Japan's huge trade surpluses did back then.

The same is true of Chinese direct investment. In the 1980s Americans were alarmed about the Japanese purchase of Rockefeller Center and Columbia studios. It turned out to be much ado about nothing. Likewise today, purchases made by Chinese firms are, in general, no big deal. Investments by state-owned firms — such as China National Offshore Oil Corporation's aborted bid for Unocal or Lenovo's successful bid for IBM's PC division — are slightly more troubling but should not be forbidden unless they risk handing over control of vital assets such as stealth technology. Neither ThinkPads nor, in all likelihood, Unocal's oil holdings fall into the high-value category.

While the Chinese quest for petroleum has gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so, this does not have to lead to a zero-sum mercantilist competition. True, China is now the world's second-biggest oil importer, behind the United States. But oil, far from sparking a conflict akin to the Anglo-Dutch trade wars of the 17th century, could actually be grounds for cooperation, since both the United States and China would like to lessen their dependence on imports. They could cooperate on alternative technologies such as electric hybrid engines and hydrogen fuel cells. This could have the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with Kyoto goals, as proposed under the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate announced in July between the United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

But even if we avoid a trade war and actually find new areas of cooperation, there is no guarantee that China's growing lucre will translate into peace in our time. In 1914 Germany was the second-richest nation in the world — and the most militaristic. Optimists think that China will eventually go the way of South Korea and Taiwan, both onetime autocracies that liberalized after getting rich. That may well happen, and for that reason, if no other, we need to keep trading with China. But it's just as plausible that China will follow the path of autocratic states like Germany and Japan, which in the early 20th century combined capitalism with expansionism. Indeed, there are more than faint echoes of Kaiser Wilhelm II and General Tojo in the fervor with which the Communist party oligarchy has adopted xenophobic nationalism as the justification for its continued rule.

Even as we do business with China, therefore, we need to strengthen our ability to dissuade it from aggression. Despite the shrill reaction he provoked from Beijing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was right to publicly warn in June that China's defense buildup was an "area of concern" for its neighbors. That warning needs to be repeated — and backed up with action. Asian democracies need to increase their military spending while extending explicit defense commitments to block potential Chinese aggression.

The studied ambiguity cultivated by the United States over the fate of Taiwan since the opening to the mainland in the 1970s was potentially dangerous. It might have risked a repeat of Secretary of State Dean Acheson's blunder in January 1950 when he did not include South Korea in the U.S. "defensive perimeter," thereby inviting Communist aggression six months later. President Bush has, therefore, been right to bluntly declare that "our nation will help Taiwan defend itself," and Japan has been right to make slightly more explicit its own commitment to Taiwan's defense. It would be useful if China's other neighbors — states like South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, perhaps even Vietnam — were to make similar commitments. That would do much to keep the peace in East Asia, and it should be an aim of U.S. diplomacy.

More broadly, the United States should strive to create, if possible, an Asian analogue to NATO. The Bush administration is right to deepen U.S. links with old allies like Japan and Australia and to establish closer ties to newer allies like India and Singapore. That process needs to continue, especially in firming up the nascent U.S.-India entente. But it would be good, if possible, to move from bilateral relations to a regional defense framework so that states in the region would work closely not only with the United States but also with one another. That won't be an easy goal to accomplish. China has been skillful in trying to wean Asian states away from the United States by a combination of military, diplomatic, and economic pressure. Most neighbors don't want to do anything to offend the 800-pound panda. (In this connection it is worth noting that Japan, South Korea, and Australia now trade more with China than with the United States.) But it is just possible that the United States, if it makes this a top priority, may be able to take advantage of growing unease about China's rise to knit together a coalition for its containment. To lessen Beijing's fear factor, such an organization could establish ties with the Chinese military, too, and make clear that regional stability is in everyone's interests — including China's.

Alliances are highly desirable, but to be credible they need to be backed up by force — an area where most of America's Asian allies are not terribly credible. While China spends 4 percent or more of its GDP on defense (probably a lot more), according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, its neighbors trail far behind. The figures are: Japan 1 percent, the Philippines 1 percent, Thailand 1.3 percent, Australia 2.3 percent, Taiwan 2.4 percent, India 2.6 percent, and South Korea 2.8 percent. (The one exception is tiny Singapore, which spends a whopping 5.2 percent.) The United States should strive to reduce free-riding by its allies – one hopes with more success than we've had with our European friends. In the case of Japan, that means supporting a move to amend the MacArthur-era constitution which makes it difficult to send the Self-Defense Forces abroad (including for the defense of Taiwan or South Korea) and a more recent political decree that caps military spending at 1 percent of GDP.

In the case of Taiwan — the state most directly threatened by rising Chinese power — that means continued pressure to get it to do more for its own defense. Although the United States agreed four years ago to sell Taipei $18 billion worth of vital weaponry, minority KMT legislators in thrall to the mainland have blocked the necessary legislation in parliament. The failure to modernize its armed forces is creating a dangerous vulnerability. The United States is not entirely blameless here; it needs to lift restrictions on high-level military-to-military contacts to make Taiwanese-American defense planning more robust and credible. But, in the end, Taiwan needs to do more to defend itself; given its strategic vulnerability, its defense spending ought to approach the Israeli level, 9.5 percent of GDP.

The ultimate question in deterring China is whether other Asian states will acquire nuclear arsenals of their own. Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan could go nuclear practically overnight. Until now they have refrained from doing so, preferring to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for fear of sparking an arms race and greater regional instability. There is no urgent need to change this policy, but it would be useful to hold up regional nuclear proliferation as a threat to get China to do more to stop the North Korean nuclear program. Surely Beijing does not want to be surrounded by nuclear-armed competitors — yet that is precisely where its failure to crack down on North Korea is leading.

Beyond containment, deterrence, and economic integration lies a strategy that the British never employed against either Germany or Japan — internal subversion. Sorry, the polite euphemisms are "democracy promotion" and "human rights protection," but these amount to the same thing: The freer China becomes, the less power the Communist oligarchy will enjoy.

The United States should aim to "Taiwanize" the mainland — to spread democracy through such steps as increased radio broadcasts and Internet postings. At the moment, Beijing does an effective job of censoring free speech with the unfortunate connivance of giant American companies, which in various ways agree not to expose Chinese consumers to such "subversive" concepts as democracy and human rights. American companies even help the security services nab people who dissent from the party line. Yahoo!, for instance, recently assisted the Chinese authorities in tracking down a journalist who dared to email information about censorship to a New York-based website. He got 10 years in prison. The U.S. Commerce Department and, if necessary, Congress should pass rules that forbid U.S. firms from facilitating human rights abuses in China.

American technology should be used to crack open, not cement, the authority of the Communist party. The United States needs to step up spending for the Chinese service of the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, the National Endowment for Democracy, and other organizations that aim to penetrate the Bamboo Curtain. China does an effective job at the moment of jamming U.S. transmissions, so we need to develop technology to get around their censors. In 2004 Congress allocated $1 million for a trial grant to the Broadcasting Board of Governors for a project to circumvent Beijing's Internet controls. That work needs to be greatly expanded. As suggested by the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, we need to create an Office of Global Internet Freedom within the executive branch that would work on undermining government controls on the web not only in China but also in dictatorships from Cuba to Syria.

In general, the U.S. government should elevate the issue of human rights in our dealings with China. The State Department wrote in its most recent human rights report that the Chinese government's "human rights record remained poor, and the Government continued to commit numerous and serious abuses." The U.S. government should do much more to publicize and denounce such abuses. We need to champion Chinese dissidents, intellectuals, and political prisoners, and help make them as famous as Andrei Sakharov, Václav Havel, and Lech Walesa. There is no point in continuing to mute our criticisms in the vain hope that, in return, China will do something tangible to help stop the North Korean nuclear program; notwithstanding the much-ballyhooed six-party deal announced in early September in Beijing, there is still no sign of Beijing's cracking down on Pyongyang.

The policies outlined here would represent a considerable change from those of the Bush administration and its immediate predecessors, which too often have kowtowed to China on security and human-rights issues while being bellicose on trade policy. A more sensible approach would be nearly the reverse. Even if this multipronged policy were fully implemented, it might not produce the desired outcome: a prosperous, parliamentary state living and trading peacefully with its neighbors. There is only so much we can do to influence Chinese behavior. But we need to at least try to head off another 1914 or 1941 — or even a 1950 — before it's too late.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a foreign affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times.


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