The China syndrome

GOP outrage over Chinese nuclear espionage is mostly politics.

Published March 15, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The current Chinese espionage controversy is "the most alarming nuclear espionage scandal in nearly 50 years, certainly since the Rosenbergs," says CNN's Lou Dobbs. What makes it similar to the "Soviet espionage of the 1940s," according to arch-conservative columnist Phyllis Schlafly, "is the cover-up by the administration." This avalanche of outrage was triggered on March 6, when New York Times staff writers Jeff Gerth and James Risen revealed that in the mid-1980s, China obtained U.S. technology that allows nuclear warheads to be miniaturized down to not much bigger than a large television set. But the fat really hit the fire two days later when Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced the firing of Los Alamos weapons designer Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born Chinese-American scientist believed to be at the center of the espionage. The days that followed have brought a steady chorus of calls for congressional investigations, for the resignation of National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and for a new get-tough policy with China.

But before heading to the bomb shelters to wait for Chinese missiles to rain down upon us, it's worth getting some political perspective on the controversy. The furor over Chinese espionage has more to do with right-wing nostalgia for the Cold War and U.S. domestic politics than it has to do with threats to American national security.

Ever since 1994, when conservative Republicans took over Congress, hostility to China on the American right has grown apace. Under pressure from Republicans, President Clinton approved issuing a visa to the president of Taiwan, which China considers a rebellious province -- a move that roiled U.S.-Chinese relations for several years. More recently, Republicans have accused the Chinese of posing all manner of threats to the United States, including peddling AK-47s to American street gangs. And just this week, one of the Republican Party's most vitriolic critics of China, GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer, said that "America's China policy must recognize the Cold War posture of the current Chinese regime."

Why are Republicans so trigger-happy when it comes to China? Several reasons -- the first of which is baldly political. Nothing has done more to damage the unity of political conservatism than the end of the Cold War. The robust 1990s economy, the rise of the fractious religious right and the increasingly centrist position of the Democratic Party have each played a role in fomenting the divisions that bedevil today's GOP. But none is so important as the end of the Cold War. With so many problems finding a unifying agenda on domestic issues, Republicans are looking to China to provide the party with a solid national defense issue in 2000. And a new Cold War would help Republicans in innumerable ways.

As GOP foreign policy guru Richard Kagan, himself one of the China-hawks, recently put it, "China is going to be a big issue in this campaign, including the primary campaign. It's a core grass-roots issue for Republicans. When a candidate goes before a conservative audience, China is an applause line." And Kagan's right. Lamar Alexander -- once known as a GOP moderate until he decided he wanted to be president -- was the first out of the gates calling on National Security Advisor Berger to resign. He was followed by almost every other candidate for the Republican nomination. And now the whole question of China has turned into a political football with a host of second-tier candidates trying to bait GOP pacesetter George W. Bush into ending his silence on the China question.

None of this is meant to imply that China does not represent a serious foreign policy challenge to the United States or that the theft of nuclear weapons technology has not compromised U.S. national security. There is some debate about how much the Chinese would have been aided by the miniaturization technology allegedly stolen from Los Alamos. But even many of those who are sympathetic to Clinton administration foreign policy concede that the technology transfer "probably was fairly serious."

Lawrence Korb, a foreign affairs expert who is now director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Salon on Friday, that if the allegations are true, "It's probably the most serious violation of the ground rules we've been working under with the Chinese" in recent years. Particularly in the 1980s, when China was still a strategic ally vis-à-vis Russia, the United States worked with the Chinese military in a variety of ways to improve their capabilities. And, given the more contentious relations between the two countries today, argues Korb, one would imagine they would be even more aggressive in seeking to acquire American technology today.

But, as many of the same experts point out, it is precisely because China is such an important foreign policy issue that it is so important not to let our policy toward the Chinese be hijacked by a bunch of hysterical right-wingers. "What I am afraid of," says Korb, "is that this gets politicized. This may be one of those incidents that will cause us to overreact and do the wrong thing. [You've got] those conservatives who want to spend more on the military, those who want to attack Clinton and so on. [These fears about China] could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nations do this [spying]. It's important. But it's not the end of the world."

Of course, Democrats can't claim innocence on the issue of politicizing American foreign policy with China. The Bush administration followed much the same policy on China as the Clinton administration has done over the last five years and, Democrats -- including Bill Clinton in 1991 and '92 -- criticized them for it mercilessly.

But there's more to the Republicans' current fascination with China than just politics -- or at least more than just politics so cynically conceived. The China question holds a unique emotional intensity for conservatives. After the so-called Chinagate scandal broke in 1997, Newt Gingrich charged that President Clinton "had approved turning over missile secrets to the Chinese." Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, claimed the president "betrayed the interests of our country." And Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia went so far as to charge that Clinton was "guilty of high treason."

This right-wing fascination with China has a long history. For decades, the interwoven issues of China, communism and Christianity have touched upon the most erogenous zones in the conservative body politic. It's no accident that the most notorious right-wing organization of the second half of the 20th century, the John Birch Society, took its name from a Christian missionary turned U.S. intelligence officer who was killed in China after allegedly being sold out by a U.S. government intent on coddling Chinese Communists. And while the Red Scare of the early 1950s focused principally on U.S.-Soviet relations, it was touched off by the Communist victory in China and the subsequent demagoguery over "Who lost China?"

The 1990s has witnessed a stark replay of the emotions and agendas tied to the first scare over communist Chinese, or as many conservatives have once again come to call them, "Chi-coms." While the Chinese government has a notorious record on human rights, there is little denying that it is a vastly more open country than it was 25 years ago. Looked at close-up, much of the intensity of conservative concern about human rights in China turns out to focus on the oppression of Chinese Christians and the admittedly egregious Chinese system of state-controlled family planning. Every controversy over U.S.-China policy has been laced with accusations that the current administration has either foolishly or treasonously sold out American interests to the Chinese -- a rank rehashing of half-century-old accusations that Democrats are soft on communism, or worse.

The reality is that Chinese military strength is minor compared to the military power of the United States. But there is every reason to think that China will become a major power in the 21st century. The size of its population, its geopolitical position, the strength of its economy and, yes, its military all point in that direction. The question -- as the Clinton administration and most of the saner foreign policy minds have conceived it -- is how to manage China's entry into great power status on the best possible terms. Will China be a belligerent and embittered power like Germany was in the first half of this century, or a relatively responsible power willing to play a constructive role in maintaining regional peace, reducing weapons proliferation and helping to provide a climate amenable to economic prosperity? The Clinton administration approach to insuring the latter course, as Council on Foreign Relations' China expert Liz Economy explains it, has been to "draw China into a web of international organizations and institutions."

Whether the Clinton administration has succeeded in that approach is a matter for debate, and many reasonable observers give the administration less than favorable reviews. But in the current feverish response to Chinese nuclear espionage (which all parties agree actually occurred while Reagan was president; the Clinton administration is accused of covering up the scandal for political reasons) it is well to remember that the critics on the right see any efforts at engagement as just so many examples of "appeasement." But that just shows how reckless and distorted a prism it is through which conservatives view the whole question.

To many right-wingers, anything short of kicking ass in every conceivable situation amounts to "appeasement." But real foreign policy is more complicated than that. Second- and third-rate powers can afford histrionic responses to provocations and outbursts of insecure chest-beating. For them it may even have a therapeutic effect. But it's a dangerous indulgence for superpowers. The evidence of Chinese espionage should remind us not to have any illusions about the current Chinese leadership. But we shouldn't be dissuaded from the basic wisdom of our policy of engagement. And we shouldn't take our foreign policy lead from reactionary voices on the right.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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