The Magazine

CHINA'S AGING ANXIOUS AUTOCRATS

May 24, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 34 • By AARON FRIEDBERG
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China's rulers are past masters at the art of playing the victim. As suggested by their unwillingness to accept official American apologies, or even to take a phone call from a plaintive President Clinton, they can now be expected to use the accidental attack on their embassy to try to keep the United States off balance and attempt to gain the initiative on a number of fronts. Unfortunately, given their experience of the past six years, Chinese officials have good reason to think that, if they keep up the pressure, their American counterparts may fold. In the past few weeks, Beijing has had some success in getting the White House to move towards a reversal of its earlier decision not to back China's entry into the World Trade Organization. The Chinese have also mounted a major diplomatic offensive aimed at discouraging the United States and its Asian allies from developing a defense system to counter the expected deployment by the People's Liberation Army of hundreds of theater ballistic missiles. Finally, over the next few months, mounting evidence of espionage and Chinese diversion of dual-use technologies is likely to lead to calls for a reexamination of the Clinton administration's dangerously relaxed attitude toward export controls. China has ample reason to create a crisis atmosphere as a way of encouraging the administration to avoid further "provocations" and redouble its commitment to "engagement" and "strategic partnership."

Tactical considerations aside, the decision to stir up anti-American sentiment may reflect the beginnings of a deeper shift in strategic direction. China's leaders appear to recognize, even if ours for the moment do not, that there are some fundamental divergences between our interests and theirs. These differences cannot be smoothed over by soothing talk or ameliorated with still more trade. America's role as leader of a global coalition of advanced industrial nations and its attempts, however bumbling, to block aggression, promote democracy, slow the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and uphold some minimal standards of decent state behavior cannot help but be threatening to the Chinese regime. Conversely, China's efforts to enhance its military strength, reclaim Taiwan, and regain a position of preponderance in Asia really do pose a profound challenge to the United States.

Unless China changes, or the United States gives way before its rising power, Sino-American relations are likely to become more openly competitive in the years ahead. Beijing appears to be girding itself for such an eventuality. Americans should be thinking about how they will cope with it, instead of simply hoping that it does not come to pass.