Below the Beltway: The China Hawks


Since
the end of the Cold War, the main challenge to those who favor
a "constructive engagement" with China has come from
human rights advocates and labor leaders. But in the last year,
a new opposition voice has been heard, arguing for a return to
the containment strategy used against the Soviet Union. This new
strategy has very little support at the Brookings Institution
or the Council on Foreign Relations, but it is well represented
in the Weekly Standard, Commentary, and the New
Republic
, and in the columns of George Will, William
Safire
, and A.M. Rosenthal. Some of the loudest voices
are former Cold War conservatives who were exiled from inner policy
circles in the last revisionist years of the Reagan administration.
These include Michael Ledeen (who helped broker the first
arms-for-hostages deal with Iran), Frank Gaffney (who was
deputy to Defense Department official Richard Perle), and Robert
Kagan
(former aide to State Department official Elliot Abrams).


These advocates of containment have
drowned out other critics of constructive engagement. When the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee met last May to consider granting
most-favored-nation status to China, the committee invited Kagan
rather than a representative from the AFL-CIO or Human Rights
Watch/Asia to present the dissenting view. That's unfortunate—not
because Kagan is inarticulate, but because the alternative he
espouses is not preferable to constructive engagement. If actually
adopted, it could spell disaster for the United States and China.


The advocates of containment see China
as the latest in a series of twentieth-century "revisionist"
powers—from Germany to Japan to the Soviet Union—threatening to
impose its will upon the world. Conflict between the United States
and China, containment advocates argue, is inevitable. "The
Chinese leadership views the world today in much the same way
Kaiser Wilhelm II did a century ago," Kagan told the Foreign
Relations Committee. "So long as China remains a ruthless
Communist dictatorship . . . the inevitability of conflict must
inform all our thinking and planning," wrote Ledeen in the
Standard.


Thus advocates of containment want
to deny China most-favored-nation status not in order to win specific
concessions, but rather as part of a long-term strategy for, as
George Will puts it, "the subversion of the Chinese regime."
Withholding economic and military ties from China and creating
NATO-like alliances to block China's expansion, this logic goes,
will eventually force the country to abandon communism for democracy.
"As was the case earlier in this century for Germany, for
Japan, and for Russia, the only enduring solution to the threat
posed by China is a change in the regime, in the direction of
political democracy," writes Harvard professor Arthur
Waldron
in Commentary.


This
position is based upon a failure to understand how China is different
from previous "revisionist" powers and how the world
itself has changed since 1945. In the first decades of the twentieth
century, Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Czarist Russia, Britain,
and Japan were each imperial powers seeking through war to alter
the distribution of colonized nations. China was a victim of this
imperialism. Hong Kong, for instance, was seized by the British
during the Opium War, and Taiwan was taken by the Japanese in
1895. China's desire to reclaim Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the Ryukyu
Islands cannot be identified with Germany's seizure of Poland
or, later, the Soviet Union's domination of Eastern Europe.


Of course, China also has an imperial
past, but its ambitions were confined to adjoining lands. The
Chinese, like nineteenth-century Americans, regarded themselves
as the citizens of a superior civilization that other countries
should emulate. Except during Lin Biao's ascendancy during the
Cultural Revolution, the Chinese, unlike the Soviets, did not
adopt a messianic, millenarian view of themselves as leaders of
world communism. And China's current communism is free of any
universal pretensions. If China has an ambition, it is to restore
its pre-imperial status as the great power of Asia. While this
ambition may lead to conflicts with other Asian nations and with
the United States, it should not be equated with the Soviet Union's
or Nazi Germany's drive for world domination.


Indeed, even if China had such ambitions,
the country is incapable of exerting protracted military force
power beyond the Asian continent. Its military consists primarily
of poorly equipped land forces. It does not really have a navy.
It does have nuclear weapons, but a recent Pentagon study describes
China's air force as "obsolescent" and "incapable
of mounting any effective largescale and sustained air operations."
China's economic power is also wildly overrated. While its coastal
towns and cities have enjoyed a boom, much of the country in the
west and north lacks the infrastructure and level of education
even for industrialization. Much of China is very backward and
poor. Its national government runs at a huge deficit, and many
of its state-owned enterprises would not survive the rigors of
market competition.


China can still cause enormous military
problems in Asia—for instance, in disputes with Southeast Asian
countries over the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands—but that
doesn't call for the kind of containment strategy the United States
adopted toward the Soviet Union. Instead, it requires a regional
strategy aimed at discouraging China from military adventures—the
kind of limited strategy that Walter Lippmann proposed
for the Soviet Union in 1947, but that George Kennan, Dean
Acheson
, and the advocates of containment adamantly opposed.


A limited strategy would include a
U.S. naval presence and might involve Japan in a more active military
role; most important, however, it would encompass the kind of
positive incentives favored by proponents of constructive engagement.
These include the acknowledgment of China's legitimate territorial
aims in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Ryukyu Islands and the invitation
to China to play a significant role in regional and international
organizations. This kind of nuanced approach is completely inconsistent
with a strategy aimed at isolating, encircling, and subverting
China.


The
current containment strategy is also based on an outmoded model
of world affairs. What would it mean, after all, for China today
to follow the example of Wilhelmine Germany? For several thousand
years, nations identified wealth and power with the acquisition
of resource-rich colonies. Both world wars were precipitated by
struggles to redivide the world's colonies. The Cold War itself
was fought over control of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Near East,
and Latin America. But the Cold War's end has concluded a process
of change toward what political scientist Richard Sklar calls
a new "postimperial" world. Countries can still go to
war over access to raw materials—witness the Gulf War—but in this
new world order, great economic powers no longer identify wealth
and power with colonial possessions, but with the command of technology
and finance; and former colonies no longer see foreign investment
as an instrument of imperialism, but as the means of improving
their own standard of living. A nation seeking power would not
envisage occupying its neighbors but would strive to make them
dependent upon its own banks and factories.


Because of its own experience of colonialism
and communism, China's entrance into this new postimperial world
has been delayed. China's attention is still directed at regaining
its possessions—its principal arms race is not with the United
States but with Taiwan. And some of China's aging leaders still
speak the language of either Marxism-Leninism or older imperialism.
But their words should be compared against what China has done
since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping, borrowing a term from American
Secretary of State John Hay, inaugurated an "open door"
for foreign investment.


The United States should make sure
that China continues its transition into this new postimperial
order. There are two principal obstacles. One is China's political
and military relations with its neighbors. The other, which neither
the proponents of constructive engagement or of containment sufficiently
acknowledge, is China's economic relationship with the rest of
world capitalism, including the United States. While China is
by no means an economic superpower, it is the world's largest
repository of low-wage manufacturing labor. China's workers' wages
are one-tenth those of Hong Kong, and with a huge reserve of unemployed
workers, and the army and party preventing the formation of unions,
wages will remain among the world's lowest for decades to come.
Combine that with a mercantile strategy designed to block imports
and force foreign investors to produce only for export, and you
have a recipe for global economic disruption.


If China were allowed into the World
Trade Organization (WTO) as a developing nation, it could fend
off complaints against its trade barriers and absence of labor
rights. In that position, it would threaten the standard of living
of workers around the globe, and could eventually wreck the organization
itself, as countries found themselves unable to use its tribunal
to remove trade barriers. The United States, which has become
China's market of last resort, needs to use the WTO negotiations
to force dramatic changes in China's trade practices. The United
States also needs to persuade other countries—Japan in particular—to
help absorb China's exports. Without an outlet for their exports,
China and other less advanced Asian countries might one day find
themselves at sword's point. But, to date, the Clinton administration's
economic policy toward China has been driven by multinational
corporations and banks that see China as an outlet for investment
and by proponents of constructive engagement who want to barter
economic concessions for geopolitical ones.


The advocates of containment don't present an alternative
to this glaring weakness of constructive engagement. Instead,
they denigrate what the New Republic has called "economic
considerations" in favor of "strategic considerations
and moral considerations," as if economics were simply a
matter of cost and profit and not the welfare of human beings,
and as if economic security were not central to the stability
of the region. The current prominence of the containment strategy
skews the debate over China; it diverts policymakers from considering
real dangers in order to refute imagined ones; it puts American
foreign policy back onto the frozen terrain of the Cold War, where
questions about trade were subordinated to the threat of war.
If we want to figure out what to do about China, it will not be
through conjuring up ghosts of Wilhelmine Germany or Stalin's
Russia, but through filling in the dim outlines of an unfamiliar
post-Cold War, postimperial future.

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