Op-Eds by Jim

What To Do About China

June 15, 1998
by James Webb, The New York Times

For more than a decade many concerned observers have warned of the dangers in reaching a one-sided rapprochement with China. Invariably, such trepidations have been minimized by “pragmatic” political voices, or shouted down by business leaders who were seduced by China’s vast potential market only to become hostages should our policies toward that country turn more confrontational.

The past several years have seen an acceleration of this willing self-deception. The Clinton Administration, buttressed by endorsements from former Republican officials, speaks wanly of a strategic partnership with China. Our crucial alliance with Japan has been strained. Our position in the rest of Asia is being undermined as we shift longstanding trade patterns away from countries with strong preferences for the free market and democracy in favor of China.

Meanwhile the Chinese Government’s repression and blatant economic corruption have been explained away as Internal matters, particularly by American business. Its courting of Muslim nations like Iran, Pakistan and Libya and attempts to penetrate the American political process through campaign donations have been dismissed as presenting no long-term threat.
In the past few weeks the folly of this benign approach became evident with the emergence of both India and Pakistan as nuclear powers. Our failure to censure China for its unremitting efforts to help Pakistan become a nuclear power has dramatically altered the strategic world order, and the role the United States must play in it. The implications of world inaction in the face of China’s audacity are of the utmost gravity, far beyond such matters as gang warfare in Somalia, petty dictators in Haiti and even the irredentist bloodletting in the Balkans that have thus far sufficed as foreign policy threats to this Administration.

The actions of the Chinese Government in this turn of events loom much larger than Pakistan’s or India’s. It would have been impossible for Pakistan to develop a nuclear capability without the illicit aid of the Chinese. And while one can justly condemn India for having fired the first shot, the reality of China and Pakistan combining forces in such a manner makes its actions understandable if not commendable.

American Government and business leaders are thus left with the unavoidable truth that China, despite its constant protests to the contrary, can no longer claim to be a non-expansionist power. And they must now prepare for the future consequences of that reality.

They can begin by putting American relationships with Japan, India, Israel and Russia on a much firmer footing. Along with the United States, these four countries possess the key ingredients of geography, military and economic power, and technological superiority to insure that China’s future conduct conforms to international norms.

First, Japan. Despite continual bickering over trade policy and its recent economic problems, Japan remains our sin le most important bilateral relationship. At the same time, Japan to date accounts for nearly 10 percent of direct investment in the Chinese economy, and 30 percent of China’s external borrowing. Through its power to reorient these activities, Japan has the standing to influence China’s economic and military conduct, particularly with American backing. As relations with China enter a new phase, we should work to strengthen this most important of alliances.

Second, Israel. It stands to lose greatly through the strategic axis China is developing with the Muslim world. The first foreign official to visit Pakistan after its detonation of nuclear devices was Iran’s Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, who proclaimed that “Muslims now feel more confident that Pakistan’s nuclear capability would play a role of deterrence to Israel’s.” Though he later played down this statement, the world must consider it in the context of Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons of its own also with Chinese – and Russian,-assistance. The United States and Israel must keep the rest of the world focused on this, and should not rule out pre-emptive military strikes if there is evidence that Iran is building a weapon.

Third, Russia. Its assistance to Iran and even to China seems based on its own economic need in the absence of a national strategy, as opposed to China’s conscious designs. With respect to these two nations, American foreign policy has reached a true historic paradox. Having brought the Soviet Union to its knees, we watched Russia struggle with democracy at the same time we were flooding nondemocratic China with an excess balance of trade. As a result China now is rich enough to short-cut its rise as a superpower by buying Russian hardware and technical assistance off the shelf.

A principal goal of American foreign policy should be to offer Russia incentives to cease providing China and other nations with such capabilities. Russia itself should need little coaxing. The Soviet Union developed a strategic alliance with India in the early 1970’s partly as a counterpoint to then-evolving Chinese power. Russia has a history of immigration and boundary disputes emanating from 2,600 miles of shared border with China, and remains at risk in its sparsely populated and mineral-rich eastern territories.

Fourth, India. Its importance to our strategic interests deserves fresh scrutiny. Although American businesses have become India’s main trading partners, it has long been ignored by United States policy makers. India, a democracy with a legal system based on English common law, has the demographic makeup and geographical position to become an important ally, as well as a trading partner on a much larger scale. Its population of nearly one billion represents a potential consumer base almost as large as China’s.

Our past tensions with India can be understood in part by choices made during the cold war, when both India and Indonesia sought warmer relations with the former Soviet Union based on their mutual fear of China’s move toward regional dominance. Although India signed a security treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971, it did so when the Nixon Administration was vigorously pursuing fresh relations with China. Nor should stronger relationships with India be interpreted by Pakistan as a rejection of our interests in that country, any more than Pakistan’s closeness to China has been viewed here as a rejection of the United States.

In addition to invigorating these relationships and holding on to its traditional base of European allies the United States also must clean its own house in terms of technology transfers and acquiescence in the face of irresponsible Chinese conduct.

Beyond doubt, China will object to such a refocusing of policy with accusations of an attempt to “contain” legitimate Chinese interests. But every expansionist power in this century has made similar claims against those who have tried to quell their aggression. And it is China, through its internal repression, encouragement of nuclear proliferation, and even the possible manipulation of our political process that has made such efforts necessary.