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Beneath the smiles and the mutual assurances, the U.S. and China are locked in an implacable struggle for power. And China, rapidly becoming a world-class military force, doesn't intend to lose.

By Jonathan Broder
March 25, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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There is no question," U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in Beijing last month, "our relations with the Chinese are a key to stability as we go into the 21st century." But as Vice President Al Gore visits with Chinese Premier Li Peng this week, those relations are under strain. The Washington fund-raising scandals took a new and more serious twist with revelations that Beijing, acting through Asian-Americans, may have funneled as much as $2 million to U.S. political campaigns last year. Apart from possible criminal activity, the incidents suggest there is a concerted quest by China to exert influence over U.S.-China trade and foreign policy, in which billions of dollars and future strategic influence in Asia are at stake.

According to Richard Bernstein, co-author with Ross Munro of the recently released "The Coming Conflict With China" (Knopf), such issues portend a looming confrontation between the United States and China -- a confrontation that could result in military hostilities if American and Chinese policy makers aren't careful.


Salon talked with Bernstein, currently a book critic with the New York Times and former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, about the "coming conflict" with China.

Both the Chinese and American governments are trying to make nice with each other, at least publicly. But behind the scenes, the climate is not good. Why?

There's a whole host of reasons, apart from China's trading practices. A recent State Department report said the human rights situation in China has grown worse. There's the prospect of a reduction in liberties once China takes over Hong Kong later this year, and there's a lot of unhappiness over China's refusal to relinquish the use of force over Taiwan.


But what makes these any more than normal diplomatic differences?

The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency recently said that China would be a military competitor with the United States by the year 2000, which is a lot faster than anyone thought it would take for China to catch up. That means China will have the capability to deter American military action regionally, especially on Taiwan.

Do you think that's likely?


I don't think we can underestimate the willingness of the Chinese to use force over Taiwan. Sovereignty over Taiwan, reunification, control by the Chinese government -- these are things on which China is not willing to compromise, as the students learned in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, when they really challenged the government for control, and as Taiwan could learn if they really move toward independence.

A military conflict seemed possible last year when the Chinese conducted those missile exercises near Taiwan and the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier into the Straits of Taiwan.


I don't think we were that close. The Chinese knew they were no match for the 7th Fleet and they were not going to provoke the Americans then. Nonetheless, it's important to bear in mind that was the largest military confrontation to take place in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War. China is involved in a very ambitious military buildup. It wants to become strong enough so the United States will have to think twice before sending in warships if China decided, say, to impose a blockade on Taiwan or to seize one of its outer islands to prevent it from declaring independence.

Do you really think China would risk war with the U.S.?

China is the only country in the world that has nuclear missiles targeted on the United States. It's the third biggest country in terms of nuclear delivery capability. It has a very effective and modern intermediate range missile force. It bought SU-27 airplanes from the Soviets, the equivalent of the F-16. The Chinese already have in-flight refueling capability, courtesy of the Israelis. They also have AWACS planes. They're building their own aircraft carriers and a bigger submarine force. They're also building a new fleet of destroyers with French and British missile technology. They're getting a lot of stuff from all over the world. Five years, 10 years from now, a confrontation with the 7th Fleet would not be so one-sided.


Right now, the conflicts have more to do with trade issues than Taiwan. Last Friday, China's trade minister said he was concerned that China's massive trade surplus was endangering U.S.-China relations.

China knows there's sentiment against China both in Congress and the administration, especially given China's $40 billion trade imbalance. They know there is pressure from some quarters to link trade with human rights. That's why you're seeing such a broad range of Chinese lobbying activities here.

There were also Chinese businessmen, including an arms trader, at those fund-raising coffees President Clinton held. Is there anything specifically that they are interested in?


Probably to influence American policy on technology transfers. Some of these people are officials of companies established in the United States but which are owned by the Chinese military. These companies do two things, basically: They sell innocuous products, like frozen fish, to the United States for foreign exchange, and they buy technology. Sometimes they buy whole companies that produce the things that China needs. Sometimes they are for civilian use and sometimes they're for military use. It's all part of China's multifaceted effort to advance its interests.

China is also lobbying heavily in Geneva to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which the U.S. has opposed. Why is the WTO so important to China, and why is the U.S. against it?

First of all, China would receive reduced tariff rates for its products, especially if they are allowed in under the terms for developing nations. But China would not have to reduce its own protective trade barriers or government subsidies by as much. Most importantly, it would put trade disputes with China into the hands of an international bureaucracy. Opponents say that will make it much more difficult to police and enforce China's promises to lower trade barriers. Many people don't trust the Chinese to live up to their promises and think the WTO would provide China with a smoke screen behind which it could continue to engage in unfair trade practices.

Are those suspicions justified?


From past Chinese behavior, there's plenty of evidence that they really are not sincere about lowering their barriers. The trade imbalance went up 17 percent last year while U.S. exports to China didn't go up at all. The $40 billion it earns every year from U.S. trade buys a lot of stuff, whether it be destroyers from the Russians or oil from Iran.

China has hinted that it would sign two United Nations human rights declarations as a gesture of good will and to improve relations with the U.S. How real is that?

I would be very skeptical about China's intent in signing those declarations. There is no sign, even with the reform of the legal system that was announced recently, that China is willing to loosen party authority over the judicial system. In important political cases, those of major dissidents, I would be very surprised if China changes its behavior. Despite its opening up, China is still a very tightly controlled society that brooks no opposition, that believes in the use of force, including against its own people, as we saw in the Tiananmen Square incident.

But at the same time, under Deng Xiaoping, it continued to open up to the West. Do you not see that continuing?


In researching our book, we found a lot of previously unpublished documentary evidence showing that over the last six or seven years, China has been involved in a pretty intense struggle over what attitude it should take toward the United States and the West. In general, hard-liners in the military want to take a tougher position against the United States and to identify the United States as the enemy. And the military is yearning for greater power now that Deng is gone.

If the hard-line position became more influential, what could that mean in terms of Chinese behavior?

It's a very good question. For one thing, it would mean an unwillingness to change policies because of American pressure and a tougher rhetorical attitude toward the United States. One of the reasons the Chinese have been so tough on human rights is because they've acquired the economic power and the international prestige to be able to defy the United States and the West. They don't have to pay attention to international public opinion the way they once did when they were weaker.

It will also mean an unwillingness to listen to us on nuclear proliferation, and a willingness to get closer to the Russians and our rivals in the Middle East. Basically, China is going its own way, flexing its muscles, feeling that its rightful place is to be a major world power -- and certainly the paramount power in Asia.


Which could make things very complicated for the U.S. in its Pacific backyard.

Yes. Already we've seen the Japanese recently turn down an American request for their participation in an anti-missile defense system, saying they were afraid of offending China. That shows that other countries in Asia will take China's interests into account first and foremost, rather than American interests.

Which suggests a major realignment coming in Asia.

I think we're looking at a realignment where you'll have China, Russia and the Muslim states of central Asia in an informal alliance, and the United States, Japan and the Southeast Asian countries on the other side. Ideally, a stable balance of power will emerge, but it could also be very risky and dangerous.

At the very least, a new Cold War, this time centered in Asia.

You hear a lot of anti-American propaganda coming out of China these days. They refer to us as "hegemonists" -- the same word they once used toward the Soviet Union during the worst days of the Sino-Soviet dispute. As a Chinese foreign policy expert in Beijing told me, it's become very politically correct to be anti-American and politically incorrect to be pro-American, to want relations to improve. There's a brittle, defensive, angry quality to the rhetoric and the attitude. I think Deng Xiaoping's passing could allow some of these forces to become stronger.

What should Clinton do about this?

I think he's doing the best he can. His China policy was a disaster early on, when he came out with all that human rights rhetoric but didn't have the will to back up it up. Since then, he's talked to the Chinese a little more and the relationship has become more stable. But I don't think he can do much more to make relations better if, as I suspect, China's aim is to replace the United States as the paramount power in Asia. I don't see how it can be stopped.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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