The Blog

CHINA

11:00 PM, Feb 23, 1997
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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans have faced a pleasant but eerie international situation: Not only has there been no other power capable of challenging U.S. preeminence in the world, it has been hard even to imagine where such a threat could possibly emerge. The nations rich enough to pose a geopolitical challenge, like Germany and Japan, are our friends. The nations hostile to American leadership, like Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, lack the wherewithal to challenge the international order we uphold. The newly democratic Russia is both too weak and too attracted to the success of Western democratic capitalism to seek the reconstitution of the empire Mikhail Gorbachev lost.


And China? Until recently, everyone knew that the reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping in the late '70s and '80s were transforming the ancient Middle Kingdom into a modern capitalist and democratic society. The Chinese, it seemed, wanted nothing more than to join this new world order.


Well, they don't. And it is increasingly clear that the policies of the Chinese regime are the leading threat to that peaceful order. Things in China haven't turned out the way the optimists predicted. Yes, China has gotten richer, but it hasn't become democratic. On the contrary, President Clinton's State Department recently reported that the Chinese government has stamped out every last bit of an already-decimated dissident movement. Within the next five months it will begin doing the same in Hong Kong.


Meantime, China is the only major world power increasing rather than decreasing its defense spending. It has proven itself willing to use force or the threat of force to get its way, around Taiwan and in the South China Sea. It has provided nuclear weapons materiel, technology, and missiles to Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq in violation of agreements. Most experts agree that China aims in the near term to replace the United States as the dominant power in East Asia and in the long term to challenge America's position as the dominant power in the world. We have spent the last few years fretting, correctly, about the smaller "rogue" nations. But how will we handle the next "rogue" superpower?


In recent years, an increasingly stale bipartisan consensus has supported a policy of "engagement" with China, an attempt to coax that ambitious power into responsible international and domestic behavior.


The Bush administration tried it without much luck; former secretary of state James A. Baker, III acknowledges in his memoirs that the policy left us "treading water." The Clinton administration, after flirting briefly with a tougher approach, fell back to "engagement" in the absence of any other ideas. A few weeks ago, the president admitted that the strategy wasn't working. But by the force of dull inertia, "engagement" still plods ahead.


It won't, we think, be able to plod on much longer. The unhappy fate of Hong Kong promises to reshape the course of U.S.-China relations over the next five months. And over the next few years, we are likely to see more confrontations over Taiwan like the one in March 1996 that required deployment of two American carrier task forces.


Maybe Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip to Beijing this month will garner a human rights "gift" from the Chinese. But there is no evidence that recent U.S. policy is having any success at reversing the general trend of increased Chinese authoritarianism at home and aggressiveness abroad. As the strategy of "engagement" is discredited by events, we will need fresh thinking that is more hard-headed and morally grounded. Some of that fresh thinking will come from the authors we publish in this special issue. And the means of changing American policy are in the hands of politicians like the three Republicans whose articles appear here as well.


The dream of a world that would not require American moral and strategic leadership has been a pleasant one. In the past few years, when it came to such thorny issues as spending money to preserve our defense capabilities, funding our diplomatic efforts overseas, and asserting the kind of leadership that could preserve the present happy state of affairs, the response of leaders in both parties has been: "Wake us up if there's any trouble."


Time to wake up.