Relations between the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) and the United States are at their worst point in 25 years. China’s military exercises, timed to influence Taiwan’s elections, along with issues of trade, the Spratly Islands, arms proliferation, nuclear weapons testing, and human rights illustrate this rift. What Washington believes to be efforts at constructive negotiation are perceived by Beijing as hostile attempts to deny China’s aspiration to great power status. This perception and the many points of debate between China and the United States are alarming. The future of Asia as well as the national security and economy of the United States will be affected by the state of the Beijing-Washington relationship.
What is China's threat to the United States?
China threatens to disrupt East Asia’s regional security through its territorial claims in the South China Sea and its attempts to bully the Republic of China (Taiwan). China’s political bluster toward Taiwan, troop movements, and launching of surface-to-surface missiles across the Taiwan Strait are worrisome.
Any menace to Taiwan’s commercial infrastructure from China would force U.S. intervention because of America’s role as an Asian security guarantor and Taiwan’s position as the United States’ sixth-largest trading partner. Similarly, U.S.-armed forces might become involved if the sea lines in the South China Sea were threatened in any way. Seventy percent of Japan’s oil supplies and 25% of global trade passes in proximity to the Spratlys, which China claims—in contention with several other nations.1 Disruption of trade and damage to the U.S. economy would result from East Asian instability. Any belligerent actions taken by China in the South China Sea probably would require a U.S. response similar to that taken in the Persian Gulf in 1990-91.
Though the U.S. economy is the world’s largest and the most competitive, China’s economy is already the third largest while still only an emerging market.2 What will happen if China becomes a competitive economy? The United States imports 40% of China’s exports, but China accounts for less than 2% of U.S. exports. This trade imbalance was worth $38 billion in 1995. Within a few years this deficit will surpass the U.S. trade deficit with Japan. China has a high surcharge on imports and there are import barriers on U.S. electronics and agricultural products. Chinese piracy of American intellectual property such as software, music, books, movies, and copyrighted technology is rampant. China even limits American investment opportunities and discriminates against U.S. business services.3 Such an imbalance restricts Chinese integration into the global community, making it a potential rogue state of considerable menace.
Despite this alarming picture of China endangering global security and commerce, the P.R.C. will not be in a position to attack the status quo for at least a decade. The three million strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not capable of sustained power projection. The PLA can neither seize and hold positions in the South China Sea nor lift an invasion force to Taiwan.4 The PLA’s fleet suffers from a dearth of amphibious and supply ships, and its limited numbers of surface ships and submarines are the maritime equivalent of Iraq’s T-55 and T-72 tanks. The recent purchase of 26 Su-27 fighters and ten Ilyushin transport aircraft from Russia does not change the PLA’s notable paucity of tanker aircraft and an airborne early warning capabilities. Insufficient numbers of transport aircraft, a lack of any air force doctrine, and inadequate training compound the PLA air force’s weakness.5 Despite its thousands of jets, Beijing’s outmoded air force is a poor match for Taiwan’s F-16s, Mirage 2000s, E-2C early-warning aircraft, Tau-Ten command-and-control centers, and new shoulder-fired Mistral missiles.
In additional, China has many domestic concerns, including an enormous population of 1.2 billion, rampant corruption, and regionalization. Buddhist Tibet and Moslem Xinjiang have long been at odds with China; Shanghai is returning to its past glory; and the return of Hong Kong to the China in July 1997 does not promise to promote harmony in the Cantonese South, which is already displaying a degree of autonomy. China’s urban problems are extreme, while population-control policies strain peasant loyalty to Beijing. The growth of the economy and the diversification of the Chinese markets have led to a rapidly expanding middle class which eventually will demand political power commensurate with the middle classes of other industrialized nations. Beijing has enough domestic preoccupations and is not likely to be overly concerned with changing the current modus vivendi. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Beijing considers Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea within its sovereignty, and that China values this sovereignty as vital to its national interests.
What should the U.S. policy be?
Beijing currently believes the United States has resurrected a containment strategy with regard to China. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph S. Nye has noted that a containment strategy or the perception of one could lead to Sino-U.S. conflict instead of deterring it.6 Despite Washington’s attempt at constructive conversation between the two nations, little has been accomplished other than straining relations by sending contradictory signals. While the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has hammered China, the Commerce and Treasury Departments have done the opposite. The State Department has waged a campaign against China’s arms sales, nuclear tests, and human rights abuses, while the Defense Department has attempted to establish better relations. Currently, there is no coordinated American policy towards China. A new China policy must be established and implemented by Washington.
What attitudes and inclinations are going to predominate in Beijing? Will China be so plagued by growing pains that it must exert all its energy averting internal collapse, or will it turn to belligerent nationalism to unite its people? Will China remain mercantilist or will its leaders commit to a free market? What will it take to integrate China into the international economic and security community?
Whether or not China becomes a regional threat is largely up to Washington. Washington’s policy must be to shape Beijing’s attitude toward the United States and the rest of the Pacific community. This attitude should be one of partnership, for as a team player, China would greatly add to regional security and global trade. Although we must not appear hostile to China’s interests or sovereignty, we cannot kowtow to Beijing either. How is this to be done?
How does the United States implement a policy which fosters partnership and lack of enmity?
A clear policy must be established and maintained. Relations with Beijing must proceed on the basis of clearly ordered bench marks that the Chinese have no doubts about. If Washington is not consistent, it will appear either to be lying or incompetent. We should present no other impression than that of integrity: strong, solid, and honest.
In the past, relations between China and the United States were based on three diplomatic communiques issued in 1972, 1978, and 1982. Beijing is comfortable with this method of protocol. A fourth communique must be worked out between China and the United States that recognizes China’s internal sovereignty as well as U.S. concerns with regard to trade and regional security matters. This new communique would clarify U.S. policy for the Chinese in a format they understand and respect.
The National Security Council staff, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, and representatives from the departments of State, Defense, Commerce, Treasury, and the CIA must work together in implementing policy toward China. Executive branch departments must complement—not contradict—each other.
It also is crucial for us to sustain our current troop strength in Asia, in order to maintain regional security. We must strengthen our relationship with Japan. Nothing should be allowed to adversely affect that cornerstone of our Asian security commitment. Similarly, our bilateral relationships with other Asian and Pacific nations should not be allowed to wane. Collective security and cooperation is a new concept for Asia, so we will must support the fledgling economic and security arrangements in the Far East. Along the same lines, we must build military ties with China like those being considered by Under Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, including trips by high-level officers, working-level exchanges, and ship visits.7 In addition, we can display our willingness to work as partners with Beijing by asking Chinese help in negotiations with North Korea. Such help will bolster security in the entire region, because China is the key to stability on the Korean peninsula.
China is a proud nation and it is ill-disposed to endure our insults about matters that Beijing considers none of our business. Without making threats, we must make it clear to all parties concerned that the United States will tolerate no interference with international shipping in the South China Sea. It must also be clear to Beijing that any attack on Taiwan is totally unacceptable. With regard to human rights, China has improved considerably in the recent decades, and is likely to progress even further if it does not perceive itself being harassed by foreigners on the issue. Similarly, we only will encourage China’s nuclear tests if we complain about them. As long as we challenge is sovereignty, Beijing will continue to follow the French practice of broadcasting its importance through such tests. Furthermore, we gain nothing by harassing Beijing about arms sales to Pakistan and Iran; even Poland ignores our concerns about arms sales to Iran.8
Washington’s trade policy with regard to China must be pursued relentlessly. We cannot allow China into the World Trade Organization if the Chinese continue their mercantilist practices. China must allow greater market access for U.S. goods and services and eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers. Although it is unlikely that intellectual property rights ever will be respected in China, this can be used to pressure Beijing about things it does control, such as tariffs. It must be made clear that obligations and responsibilities accompany great-nation status. China has long considered itself the center of the world, and it must now act as a part of that world. We should negotiate as a friend, on the basis of welcoming China into the international industrial community as an equal who must play by the rules to stay on the team.
1 Jason Glashow and Barbara Opall, “Asia Sees Contentious, Prosperous Year,” Defense News, 11-17 December 1995, pp. 14, 16.
2 15th World Competitiveness Report, published by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum and the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.
3 Speech of Deputy U. S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, “Trade in a New Era: Opportunities and Obstacles,” 13 November 1995, Hong Kong.
4 Ron Montaperto, “China as a Military Power.” Institute for National Strategic Studies Strategic Forum, No. 56, Dec. 1995.
5 Kenneth W. Allen, China’s Air Force Enters the 21st Century, (Santa Monica: RAND, 1995).
6 Joseph S. Nye,"The Case for Deep Engagement." Foreign Affairs, July/August 1995, pp. 90-102.
7 Jason Glashow and Robert Holzer. “U.S. Military Eyes Asia Mission.” Defense News, 18-24 December 1995, pp. 3, 21.
8 Jonathan Clarke. “Leaders and Followers.” Foreign Policy, Winter 1995-96. p. 44.
Captain Kojac is assigned to the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School. He participates in the Pacific Council on International Policy.