Why Are U.S. Policymakers So Fickle When It Comes to China?

News Abroad

Jianwei Wang is a professor of political science, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and senior research associate, Shanghai Institute for American Studies and Shanghai Center for RimPac Strategic and International Studies. He is the author of Limited Adversaries: Post-Cold War Sino-American Mutual Images (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States-from policymakers to the public-has engaged itself in the seemingly endless debate about whether China is its friend or foe. Immediately after the Tiananmen incident and the demise of the Soviet Union, people debated whether this struggling communist regime would soon collapse and therefore was still worthy of friendship from the United States. After China achieved a remarkable economic "soft landing" and subsequent robust economic boom in the early 1990s, the notion of a"China threat" soon gained currency. With a series of frictions between the two countries that included the dispatch of two U.S. aircraft carriers to the South China Sea during the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996, the U.S.-led NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and the midair collusion between a Chinese fighter and a US spy plane in 2001, Americans increasingly perceived China as an adversary looming ominously on the horizon.

Consistent with the public's unsettling mood toward China, successive U.S. governments have had great difficulties in defining China in its overall post-Cold War foreign policy strategy. No sooner after the Clinton administration elevated China to a status of "strategic partner," had Republican presidential candidate George Bush alternatively characterized it as a "strategic competitor." The pattern seems to be that U.S. policy makers have to redefine U.S.- China relations every few years. Whenever the relationship appeared to be stabilizing and a consensus was shaping, new crises emerged and destroyed the hard-won progress, triggering another around of debate on China as if people never learned anything from the previous debate; the old and stereotyped discourse started all over again.

Before September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration's national security and military strategy clearly defined China as a present nuisance and long-term threat to the United States. The main thrusts of various classified and unclassified reviews and reports, such as the Marshall report and the Khalizad report, were China, China, and still China. No matter how China evolves in the future, it would be a menace to the United States. To deal with this erratic giant, these reports suggested, the United States should shift its strategic priority from Europe to East Asia, abandon the longtime strategy of fighting two major regional conflicts, and modernize its long-range navy and air capabilities in the region. Pentagon's 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), largely prepared before September 11, implicitly identified China as "a military competitor with a formidable resource base" that would likely come into conflict with the United States in the future. Perhaps for the first time since World War II, the U.S. grand strategy became China-centered.

The September 11 terrorist attack dramatically changed the geopolitical landscape against which the two countries interact. It tragically proved that the Bush Administration's preoccupation with China was misplaced. The imminent danger to U.S. national security was not from major powers like China, but rather from stateless international terrorist organizations and their state patrons. It provided an unexpected window of opportunity for the two countries to reverse the previous adversarial trend in their relations. China's "unhesitant" (in Bush's words) support for the U.S. war on terror, low key diplomacy on Iraq, softened postures toward Taiwan, and painstaking effort to bring North Korea to the negotiation table, coupled with the American need for building an international coalition against terrorism and appreciation for China's support, have produced a remarkable turnaround of the relationship beyond anyone's expectations. More significant is that China's cooperative behavior apparently have led some U.S. policy makers to re-conceptualize China's nature and its position in the U.S. global strategy.

The most noticeable is the perceptual change of President Bush. After September 11, he completely dropped the term "strategic competitor" to describe China. Instead, he redefined Sino-American relations as in terms of 3Cs (constructive, cooperative, and candid) and started calling China as an "ally." It has become increasingly evident that he has treated Chinese leaders with more respect and warmth. The friendly body language and atmospherics between him and new Chinese President Hu Jintao in their summit meeting at Evian is just the most recent example. In his West Point speech on national security strategy in 2002, Bush further conceptualized his new understanding of major power relations, including China. He declared that the United States faces the "best chance since the rise of the nation state in the 17th century to build a world where the great powers compete in peace instead of prepare for war." While competition between great nations is inevitable, armed conflict between them is not. This is a critical perceptual change, often overlooked, that paved the way for the improvement and stabilization of the relationship.

President Bush is not alone. Even the perceptions of China "hawks" in the Pentagon have been evolving. In their recent trip to East Asia, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and his entourage made some extraordinary remarks, indicating how much their views on China have been modified after September 11. Wolfowitz suggested that if the North Korean regime wants to survive, it could look to China as an example. By doing so he subtly praised China's reforms, endorsed the legitimacy of the Chinese regime, and drew a clear line between China and those "rogue states." A senior Pentagon official accompanying Wolfowitz further elaborated that "compared to other evils in the world, China doesn't seen so evil as it did two years ago." Due to Beijing's preoccupation with its economic modernization and internal problems, it will pursue a peaceful policy toward its neighbors in the foreseeable future. In both words and deeds, "the Chinese have been fairly good participants in this part of the world recently." Such an interpretation of Chinese international behavior is almost identical to Beijing's official proclamation! There have been some signs that such perceptual changes regarding China began to influence the strategic and military planning in Pentagon. Some reviews and studies floating around, contrary to those pre-September 11 ones, apparently all use the perceived diminishing China threat as a rationale for possible force restructuring and redeployment in the region.

These are certainly positive trends for U.S.-China relations. After September 11, the United States and China both seized the opportunity to promote ad hoc cooperation between the two sides. A more challenging test of the political wisdom of both countries, however, is how to turn this expedient opportunity into a lasting momentum for a more stable relationship. To realize this, it is not sufficient to have functional collaboration in various issues areas. More important is a realistic understanding of each other's nature, intention, and goals. Not regarding the other side as a mortal and embedded enemy is a good first step. Perceptual changes between nations are never easy, and translating perceptual change into policy change is equally difficult. However, one can argue that after more than a decade of post-Cold War and particularly post- September 11 interactions between the two countries, the United States should have been able to figure out the "true color" of China as a rising power. The often divisive debate on China as a friend or foe ought to come to an end, thus laying a necessary cognitive foundation for a truly "constructive" and "cooperative" relationship in the 21st century.

This piece appears courtesy of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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More Comments:

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/27/2003

1. There's an interesting Washington Post article today on the situation in China at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50469-2003Aug26.html

2. China poses problems in consistency for legitimate reasons. It is powerful in its region; its location makes its cooperation necessary on some levels; yet many of its internal policies quite rightly make people gag.

The results, necessarily, are policies that seem contradictory.

Consider the debate over the WTO. Was encouraging China's admission into the WTO a way to support progressive elements within its power structure or did it simply strengthen a repressive regime?

In the short run it probably did both. The difficult question is which will matter more in the long run.

Would a firm declaration of willingness to defend Taiwan cause a war or make sure that a war does not occur? That depends on how "irrational" the leadership is (and the nature of that irrationality).

I'm not trying to suggest that it is impossible to come up with a better balance than we have seen. To that end articles such as Perkins' are important. But even the best policy is going to appear inconsistent because we have to balance contrary goals and because few or our actions won't be two-edged swords.

Garry Perkins - 8/25/2003

Professor Wang has carefully prepared an essay that avoids the greatest ideological wall between the Chinese Communist Party and the US government. The American people no longer subscribe to a highly racialist, fascist view of the world. The Chinese government continually promotes a very frightening form of Chinese racial solidarity that would make any non-Han person uncomfortable. Even Han people in Taiwan are sickened by the hate-filled views of the current Chinese government.

What is most disturbing is that educated, intelligent Chinese appear to follow these views. I often interview Chinese graduate students for perspective jobs in my firm. I always ask about Taiwan. You would not believe the Hitlerian statements that come out of the mouths of most PRC students I interview from UC, Cornell, Columbia, and other top graduate institutions. How could they possibley hope to work in a multicultural environment? This is the new, liberal generation of the PRC.

Academics all like to think that China will become another Taiwan or South Korea. That democracy and modern social views will eventually follow economic liberalization. What if it does not? What if Taiwanese people choose to have the same rights as Californian? What if they pass a referendum law? What if they choose to be an independent Chinese state? Does Professor Wang trust that the Communist Cadre in Beijing will choose not to start World War III?

Let's all pray for a "constructive" and "cooperative" relationship to develop, but it is not realistic for the US government, or any other, to count on rational Chinese government behavior. The US should have a military and diplomatic policy for containing this nuclear, highly unstable state unitl it becomes a modern liberal democracy.