Thursday, May 19, 2005
Sagacious commentators have concluded that American policy in Asia generally lacks focus and coherence. I have to agree with that. But what I do not agree with is the notion that the only or best way to achieve overall US policy coherence is to make a mortal blood enemy out of China.
For starters, China does not truly regard America with the kind of contempt and fear which the US, for instance, once reserved for the Soviet Union. There is much that the Chinese people admire about America; and there is good reason for the Chinese to view it not as an impediment to their future but as a semi-friendly associate and occasional ally. War between the two would not only be tragically costly, it would be monumentally stupid.
Sure, a measure of pushing and shoving for space and positioning on the Asian continent and the surrounding waters is inevitable. But keep in mind that Americans are one of China’s most consumer-goods-hungry customers and (barring foolish congressional protectionism) will remain so. Keep in mind, too, that embedded in Chinese history is the story of the riveting impact of the secret trip to China by president Richard Nixon more than three decades ago. That stunning diplomatic stroke triggered a long-overdue initiation of the painful process of China’s emergence from debilitating isolation to integration into the world system.
Rather than focus on China as a present and future enemy, wise US policy would find ways to emphasise areas of co-operation that deepen the relationship. Two examples may perhaps suffice for now. Take the grating tensions over the North Korean nuclear issue. To be sure, this is a very important problem, but over the long term, it is not as consequential as Sino-US relations. Yet, a serious split has emerged between Washington and Beijing on the Korean problem at the very time that the two need to work hand in glove to keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.
The Chinese have been recommending intensified bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang. Why not hold intensive bilateral chats in whatever format with the North Koreans – a concession that would put pressure on the Chinese to lean on Pyongyang? Why drive an unnecessarily large wedge into Sino-US relations over a lesser (although still important) issue?
Here is another example: America’s military posture in the Pacific region. The question is: do we wish to emphasise continual confrontation or case-by-case co-operation?
A sense of suspicion-making confrontation, more than anything else, is what readers are likely to take away from the detailed overview of the US military posture in the Pacific to be found in the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In How We Would Fight China, Robert Kaplan writes: “No matter how successfully our military adapts to the rise of China, it is clear that our current dominance in the Pacific will not last …”
Sure, it takes two to tango, but it also takes two to tangle. One senses that the current US administration – deeply divided on how to handle China – will blunder in the direction of Pacific confrontation. It will do so not primarily because Beijing is so aggressive but because Washington is more comfortable with a policy of simplicity (a USSR-like new cold war standoff with China) than a policy of nuanced bilateralism.
Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia-Pacific Media Network.
Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre