Peking, Hong Kong, & the US

The Coming Conflict with China

by Richard Bernstein and 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…

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