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Peking, Hong Kong, & the US

The Coming Conflict with China

by Richard Bernstein, by Ross H. Munro
Knopf, 245 pp., $23.00


No recent book has blown a bigger hole in the proposition that the US must follow a policy of “positive engagement” with China than The Coming Conflict with China. It is a mark of the wound they inflicted on Peking that the authors, ex-reporters in Peking, Richard Bernstein for Time magazine and Ross Munro for the Toronto Globe and Mail, have been identified by Xinhua, the official New China News Agency, as

extremely domineering and conceited…viewing things with prejudice and racial discrimination… and defaming China’s socialist system because it did not collapse as they wished after the collapse in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The essential question raised by their book is how to deal with China. Should American criticisms of Chinese behavior, whether toward Taiwan or Hong Kong, American exports, or China’s own dissidents, be offered behind a diplomatic screen, so to speak, where they are allegedly most effective in a culture that values “face”? Or should Peking be confronted like any other country when it challenges basic American interests? Bernstein and Munro want the US to be much more willing to openly oppose Chinese policies than the Clinton administration has been. They speak in large geopolitical terms of China’s prospects for gaining a dominant, and intimidating, power in Asia; and they even foresee that in some circumstances it may be necessary to have a “face-off” with China, for example if Peking were to attempt to take over Taiwan by force.

If the kinds of threats from Peking the authors anticipate become realities, however, I believe it will be too late to deter China. And going to war is unthinkable. But President Clinton has stated that the United States will “stand with those who stand for freedom in Asia,” and he has included Hong Kong on his list. I will argue here that Washington should immediately establish Hong Kong as a test case, making plain to Peking that unless it adheres to its treaty obligations there, it will encounter American obstacles to its full international acceptance.

The authors believe that China’s intentions are plain: it is an “unsatisfied and ambitious power whose goal is to dominate Asia.” Such a goal, they write, is “directly contrary to American interests.” The most important of these interests is that the US maintain its position as “the preeminent power in Asia….” This is the kind of statement that gives Xinhua the opportunity for a counterpunch at Bernstein and Munro. “They feel,” the Chinese agency says, “extremely happy about their country’s hegemonic acts throughout the world.” Their attack on China’s motives “represents a typically indecent way of thinking—gauge a noble heart with one’s own mean measure.” By the end of its attack Xinhua has slid from The Coming Conflict with China to America itself. “The United States is acting like a villain who sues his victim before he himself is prosecuted. Its ultimate goal is to stifle China.”

The racist innuendo aside, Xinhua is correct: Bernstein and Munro want the present Chinese system to collapse. Indeed they regard its collapse as inevitable if China becomes more democratic—although they doubt it will. But it is not “China’s socialist system” they attack. China, they claim, “seems moving toward some of the characteristics that were important in early-twentieth-century fascism.” These include a cult of the state, for which the individual must sacrifice himself; the emergence of a powerful army with both political and economic authority; a disciplined ruling party, whose leaders and their children control state corporations, weapons’ manufacturing, and banking; and “a powerful sense of wounded nationalism.”

There is little in traditional or modern Chinese “political culture,” they say, that would welcome democracy. And democratic reforms in China—opposition parties, free elections, a free press—would force its present leaders to yield power, which they do not intend to do. Indeed, China’s leaders “are probably sincere in their equation of democratic reform with social chaos.” If what Bernstein and Munro would like to see happen in China comes about—namely democracy—the current system, in their view, could not survive. Still, they write that “the ultimate American objective on China is to induce China to behave responsibly and to become more democratic.” Democracies, they say, are less likely to start wars.

In the last paragraph of their last chapter Bernstein and Munro suddenly veer away from their apocalyptic vision and from the very title of their book, saying they have met many young Chinese “for whom antagonistic nationalism has no appeal.” American diplomats should remain in contact with such “cosmopolitan and liberal segments of the vast Chinese nation,” who can steer China onto a less dangerous path. If there are so many and it is so easy to meet them, perhaps the authors are too pessimistic. But they do not explore this possibility in the body of their book.

This is a mistake which threatens their thesis. Except for their anomalous last paragraph, the authors give the impression of a Maoist China of one mind, certain of its intention. Recent visitors give a different impression, of a Peking and indeed of a country in which factions compete to make internal and international policy. Lucian Pye, of MIT, puts it well:

The leitmotiv of Mao’s China was orthodoxy, conformity and isolation, a whole people walking in lock-step, seemingly with only one voice, repeating one mindless slogan after another…. In amazing contrast, Deng’s China was a congeries of elements, not an integrated system at all…. Above all, economics and politics seemed to be adhering to different rules, so that there was openness here, controls there…. A “fragmented authoritarian” system in Kenneth Lieberthal’s well-chosen words.1

Apart from their last-minute optimism, the authors see China as an enemy of the United States. They quote a senior Chinese analyst: “In the coming fifteen years there won’t be fundamental conflicts between the United States and China but after that fundamental conflict will be inevitable.” They quote, too, a famous remark in 1996 of General Mi Zhenyu, Vice-Commandant of the Academy of Military Sciences: “[As for the United States] for a relatively long time it will be absolutely necessary that we quietly nurse our sense of vengeance…. We must conceal our abilities and bide our time.” For Bernstein and Munro the primary American objective is therefore quite clear: “to prevent China from becoming the hostile hegemon …in Asia.” (The word “hegemon” here especially nettles Peking, which formerly used it against both the Soviet Union and the United States, and now reserves it for the US alone.)

The authors do not predict that a military collision between China and the US is bound to come—unless Peking continues to press its claims to dominate the sea lanes in the East China Sea or, more dangerously, if it attempts to retake Taiwan by force. If Washington allows Taiwan to fall, they ask, “what will be the implications for the survival of credible American power elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific?” American power, they make it clear, will be undermined and the East Asian nations will increasingly submit to Chinese domination. This foreboding is not eased by Peking. In its criticism of The Coming Conflict, Xinhua refers to Foreign Minister Qian Qichen’s recent statement that there was no possibility of a US-China war—“unless the United States violates China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty….” China considers Taiwan an integral part of its territory.

But military collision apart, Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Munro argue that political conflict “seems to us to be the most likely condition of Chinese-American relations for the foresee-able future.” They criticize those prominent American politicians, academics, and businessmen who claim that to openly criticize or oppose Chinese behavior is to provoke China for no visible return. Those who hold this view usually maintain that China has a weak army, is not expansionist, and does not menace the interests of the United States or China’s neighbors, while, at the same time, its growing economy presents important opportunities for trade with the US. According to their argument, China, with its traditional regard for “face,” is easily insulted, but really needs the US as a guarantor of stability in East Asia. “Over the long run, China and the United States are fated to be global partners, even if…there are periods of tension.”

The authors call the exponents of this view “The New China Lobby,” which they say ignores that China “is in so many ways an adversary, a dictatorship, an emerging superpower whose interests are at odds with those of the United States.”2 Among the members of this lobby the authors cite former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, and Lawrence Eagleburger, as well as former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. Some of these men, the authors write, have represented American companies doing business in China; but they do not claim that their views have been determined by their financial interests. Bernstein and Munro refer also to “a contingent of a half a dozen or so senior scholars of China whose careers have flourished…in part because they have been granted access at a high level in China.” They fear being cut off from that access if they offend Peking and so on sensitive subjects they find it best “either to flatter or to remain silent.” The authors, who are explicit in referring to ex-officials who have business connections in China, are reticent about the identity of these “senior scholars of China.”

While unmistakably polemical, The Coming Conflict with China is also persuasive. Its chapter on the Chinese army, for example, shows that while Peking’s declared military spending is $8.7 billion, a pittance compared to the $265 billion spent by the US, the Government Accounting Office in Washington concludes that it is actually three times greater. And the authors “believe that the multiple is much higher—indeed that it is between ten and twenty times the official figure.” Published military budgets, they point out, exclude nuclear weapons development, the purchase in 1995 of $2.8 billion worth of Soviet fighter jets, arms sales abroad, and the PLA’s earnings from its roughly twenty thousand companies. If China’s military budget is ten times higher than it acknowledges, this would put China’s defense spending at $87 billion, or nearly one third of the American figure. The authors note that “whether or not China ‘catches up’ to the West is not the important question.” China already has the largest military force in Asia and “the only one which has deployed nuclear weapons.”3

But despite such ominous evidence, Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Munro contend, Washington has “sent a clear message that in any test of wills” with China, “the United States will back down in the face of the inflexible determination not to yield.” Except when it sent two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait in March 1996 after Peking began military maneuvers during the presidential elections on the island, the US nowadays prefers to say little or nothing when China sells weapons of mass destruction to what Washington calls “rogue nations” such as Libya, violates the human rights of those inside its borders, isolates Japan as an Asian power by constantly raising the question of war guilt, and extends its power throughout Asia, as “a powerful economy creating a credible military force.”

  1. 1

    Lucian Pye, “An Introductory Profile: Deng Xioping and China’s Political Culture,” in David Shambaugh, editor, Deng Xiaoping: Portrait of a Chinese Statesman (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 4.

  2. 2

    They finished their book before the recent allegations that the Chinese government has sponsored attempts to funnel contributions to the Democratic Party in order to gain influence in the White House and Congress.

  3. 3

    Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, a great exponent of human rights and democracy in China, and Robert S. Ross of Boston College, in their thoughtful new The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress (Norton, June 1997), are far more optimistic that China can be reasoned with than the authors of The Coming Conflict. Nathan and Ross believe China’s military to be “the most backward among the great-power armies in East Asia,…vulnerable to military challenges in its coastal waters, unable to win an air war against Taiwan, and unable to project power to defend its territorial claims.” Because of its inadequate military resources China cannot “establish regional domination” in the foreseeable future. But Mr. Nathan and Mr. Ross also see China as “a spoiler,” a disrupter of its neighbors’ security and of attempts to create regional and global orders. China, they conclude, is in many ways a vulnerable power, especially internally and even more so after the Deng era. Understanding this vulnerability and even insecurity—which can make it dangerous to its neighbors—”should help Western policymakers accommodate China when they should, persuade China when they can, and resist China when they must.”

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