The Magazine

Bush's String of Firecrackers

From the March 28, 2005 issue: Time for some democratic noise in East Asia.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By ROSS TERRILL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IT IS FASHIONABLE to rejoice that China "is joining the international community," whatever that is. The New York Times goes further and claims China is pushing the United States aside in Asia because of Bush's policies. "More than 50 years of American dominance in Asia is subtly but unmistakably eroding," wrote Jane Perlez in October 2003; China has transformed itself "from a country to be feared to one that beckons." She was quite wrong, as the tsunami aftermath alone made plain. She will continue to be wrong so long as her reporting takes no account of the oxygen of democracy seeping into the cells of authoritarianism.

If Beijing is becoming Asia's leader, evidence is scarce. Apart from the undoubted contribution of China's economic success to the region, what role is she playing? Beijing is the centerpiece of a cluster of Communist states that are the final standard-bearers of Leninism in a post-Soviet world. These remaining Leninist states, plus Burma, form the heart of human rights problems in East Asia. Constructive leadership for Asia on Beijing's part? Is this what makes China the country "that beckons," as Perlez put it? China's eclipse of the United States in Asia is indeed so "subtle" that I seem to have missed it entirely.

China's prospects of becoming the centerpiece of a new order in East Asia, pushing the United States aside, are close to zero. Initial success would quickly issue in failure, because a Japan that saw China eclipse the United States would challenge China. Once again, as for six decades from 1894, China and Japan would vie for dominance over the region. China would also learn, as Washington has done painfully, that the risen one gets bitten by those whose feathers have been ruffled. Above all, an authoritarian China lacks moral appeal to Asia. It does not even have a comfortable grip over its own semi-empire in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Inner Mongolia.

The critics of Bush's preemptions should remember that the failure to use military force in a timely manner has historically cost freedom dearly, and a trust in paper promises of peace has done the same. In 1928 the United States and France pledged no war ever between them, and, upon their invitation, 62 nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact. One of the High Contracting Parties was the emperor of Japan. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria. The League of Nations sent a committee to look at the situation. No nation lifted a finger to punish Japan, or substantially help China defend itself against Japan's further onslaught in 1937. A military dictatorship had gotten away with aggression. Only a horrendous world war reversed the damage.

Liberal foreign policy gurus are terrified that President Bush may "make Beijing angry" or "displease China" if he talks of democracy and freedom. In one sense there is no way Washington can fully please Beijing. The Communist regime's anger at hegemonists (that's us) is a theology. America is needed as an adversary to shore up the legitimacy of a Communist party-state that came to power by the gun and has lost faith in Marxism. At a different level Washington need have little fear of Beijing. Bush's firm positions on Taiwan and missile defense have not reduced the worthwhile areas of U.S.-China cooperation. Partly this is thanks to 9/11, of course, but the reason lies deeper. Although the Communist party needs to assail us verbally, no economic, cultural, or security interest of China is served by hostility to the United States. For all its fiery words (in recent weeks about U.S.-Japan cooperation over Taiwan's security), China, a lesser power, respects the strength of the superpower.

The next China drama will unfold not in its foreign relations but at home, as huge internal migrations, the Internet, a middle-class push for property rights, imperial tensions, and life in the World Trade Organization strip bare the illogic of "market Leninism." Traveling one road in economics and a different one in politics does not make for a smooth ride or a settled destination. How that schizophrenia is resolved will clarify the heft and worth of China's world role.

China's behavior is far from all bad. What restrains Beijing is growing marketization within China, U.S. power that keeps Beijing's ambitions in check, the moral authority of Taiwan's democracy, and the imperative of filling American stores with Chinese clothes, photo albums, TVs, and shoes if the Communist party is to survive. These restraints all come despite the instincts of China's authoritarian political system. They are required of China by the power of free markets and democratic ideas, and by the muscle of Uncle Sam, who is the beacon of both. Bush's words last week at the National Defense University apply with special force to East Asia: Dictatorship is the "last gasp of a discredited past." So do Reagan's words to the British parliament: "Let us tell the world that a new age is not only possible but probable."

Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asia, is the author of The New Chinese Empire, just out in paperback, and biographies of Mao and Madame Mao.