The Magazine

Project for a New Chinese Century

Beijing plans for national greatness.

Oct 10, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 04 • By MAX BOOT
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The same is true of Chinese direct investment. In the 1980s Americans were alarmed about the Japanese purchase of Rockefeller Center and Columbia studios. It turned out to be much ado about nothing. Likewise today, purchases made by Chinese firms are, in general, no big deal. Investments by state-owned firms--such as China National Offshore Oil Corporation's aborted bid for Unocal or Lenovo's successful bid for IBM's PC division--are slightly more troubling but should not be forbidden unless they risk handing over control of vital assets such as stealth technology. Neither ThinkPads nor, in all likelihood, Unocal's oil holdings fall into the high-value category.

While the Chinese quest for petroleum has gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so, this does not have to lead to a zero-sum mercantilist competition. True, China is now the world's second-biggest oil importer, behind the United States. But oil, far from sparking a conflict akin to the Anglo-Dutch trade wars of the 17th century, could actually be grounds for cooperation, since both the United States and China would like to lessen their dependence on imports. They could cooperate on alternative technologies such as electric hybrid engines and hydrogen fuel cells. This could have the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with Kyoto goals, as proposed under the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate announced in July between the United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

BUT EVEN IF WE AVOID a trade war and actually find new areas of cooperation, there is no guarantee that China's growing lucre will translate into peace in our time. In 1914 Germany was the second-richest nation in the world--and the most militaristic. Optimists think that China will eventually go the way of South Korea and Taiwan, both onetime autocracies that liberalized after getting rich. That may well happen, and for that reason, if no other, we need to keep trading with China. But it's just as plausible that China will follow the path of autocratic states like Germany and Japan, which in the early 20th century combined capitalism with expansionism. Indeed, there are more than faint echoes of Kaiser Wilhelm II and General Tojo in the fervor with which the Communist party oligarchy has adopted xenophobic nationalism as the justification for its continued rule.

Even as we do business with China, therefore, we need to strengthen our ability to dissuade it from aggression. Despite the shrill reaction he provoked from Beijing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was right to publicly warn in June that China's defense buildup was an "area of concern" for its neighbors. That warning needs to be repeated--and backed up with action. Asian democracies need to increase their military spending while extending explicit defense commitments to block potential Chinese aggression.

The studied ambiguity cultivated by the United States over the fate of Taiwan since the opening to the mainland in the 1970s was potentially dangerous. It might have risked a repeat of Secretary of State Dean Acheson's blunder in January 1950 when he did not include South Korea in the U.S. "defensive perimeter," thereby inviting Communist aggression six months later. President Bush has, therefore, been right to bluntly declare that "our nation will help Taiwan defend itself," and Japan has been right to make slightly more explicit its own commitment to Taiwan's defense. It would be useful if China's other neighbors--states like South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, perhaps even Vietnam--were to make similar commitments. That would do much to keep the peace in East Asia, and it should be an aim of U.S. diplomacy.

More broadly, the United States should strive to create, if possible, an Asian analogue to NATO. The Bush administration is right to deepen U.S. links with old allies like Japan and Australia and to establish closer ties to newer allies like India and Singapore. That process needs to continue, especially in firming up the nascent U.S.-India entente. But it would be good, if possible, to move from bilateral relations to a regional defense framework so that states in the region would work closely not only with the United States but also with one another. That won't be an easy goal to accomplish. China has been skillful in trying to wean Asian states away from the United States by a combination of military, diplomatic, and economic pressure. Most neighbors don't want to do anything to offend the 800-pound panda. (In this connection it is worth noting that Japan, South Korea, and Australia now trade more with China than with the United States.) But it is just possible that the United States, if it makes this a top priority, may be able to take advantage of growing unease about China's rise to knit together a coalition for its containment. To lessen Beijing's fear factor, such an organization could establish ties with the Chinese military, too, and make clear that regional stability is in everyone's interests--including China's.

Alliances are highly desirable, but to be credible they need to be backed up by force--an area where most of America's Asian allies are not terribly credible. While China spends 4 percent or more of its GDP on defense (probably a lot more), according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, its neighbors trail far behind. The figures are: Japan 1 percent, the Philippines 1 percent, Thailand 1.3 percent, Australia 2.3 percent, Taiwan 2.4 percent, India 2.6 percent, and South Korea 2.8 percent. (The one exception is tiny Singapore, which spends a whopping 5.2 percent.) The United States should strive to reduce free-riding by its allies--one hopes with more success than we've had with our European friends. In the case of Japan, that means supporting a move to amend the MacArthur-era constitution which makes it difficult to send the Self-Defense Forces abroad (including for the defense of Taiwan or South Korea) and a more recent political decree that caps military spending at 1 percent of GDP.

In the case of Taiwan--the state most directly threatened by rising Chinese power--that means continued pressure to get it to do more for its own defense. Although the United States agreed four years ago to sell Taipei $18 billion worth of vital weaponry, minority KMT legislators in thrall to the mainland have blocked the necessary legislation in parliament. The failure to modernize its armed forces is creating a dangerous vulnerability. The United States is not entirely blameless here; it needs to lift restrictions on high-level military-to-military contacts to make Taiwanese-American defense planning more robust and credible. But, in the end, Taiwan needs to do more to defend itself; given its strategic vulnerability, its defense spending ought to approach the Israeli level, 9.5 percent of GDP.

The ultimate question in deterring China is whether other Asian states will acquire nuclear arsenals of their own. Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan could go nuclear practically overnight. Until now they have refrained from doing so, preferring to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for fear of sparking an arms race and greater regional instability. There is no urgent need to change this policy, but it would be useful to hold up regional nuclear proliferation as a threat to get China to do more to stop the North Korean nuclear program. Surely Beijing does not want to be surrounded by nuclear-armed competitors--yet that is precisely where its failure to crack down on North Korea is leading.

BEYOND CONTAINMENT, deterrence, and economic integration lies a strategy that the British never employed against either Germany or Japan--internal subversion. Sorry, the polite euphemisms are "democracy promotion" and "human rights protection," but these amount to the same thing: The freer China becomes, the less power the Communist oligarchy will enjoy.

The United States should aim to "Taiwanize" the mainland--to spread democracy through such steps as increased radio broadcasts and Internet postings. At the moment, Beijing does an effective job of censoring free speech with the unfortunate connivance of giant American companies, which in various ways agree not to expose Chinese consumers to such "subversive" concepts as democracy and human rights. American companies even help the security services nab people who dissent from the party line. Yahoo!, for instance, recently assisted the Chinese authorities in tracking down a journalist who dared to email information about censorship to a New York-based website. He got 10 years in prison. The U.S. Commerce Department and, if necessary, Congress should pass rules that forbid U.S. firms from facilitating human rights abuses in China.

American technology should be used to crack open, not cement, the authority of the Communist party. The United States needs to step up spending for the Chinese service of the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, the National Endowment for Democracy, and other organizations that aim to penetrate the Bamboo Curtain. China does an effective job at the moment of jamming U.S. transmissions, so we need to develop technology to get around their censors. In 2004 Congress allocated $1 million for a trial grant to the Broadcasting Board of Governors for a project to circumvent Beijing's Internet controls. That work needs to be greatly expanded. As suggested by the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, we need to create an Office of Global Internet Freedom within the executive branch that would work on undermining government controls on the web not only in China but also in dictatorships from Cuba to Syria.

In general, the U.S. government should elevate the issue of human rights in our dealings with China. The State Department wrote in its most recent human rights report that the Chinese government's "human rights record remained poor, and the Government continued to commit numerous and serious abuses." The U.S. government should do much more to publicize and denounce such abuses. We need to champion Chinese dissidents, intellectuals, and political prisoners, and help make them as famous as Andrei Sakharov, Václav Havel, and Lech Walesa. There is no point in continuing to mute our criticisms in the vain hope that, in return, China will do something tangible to help stop the North Korean nuclear program; notwithstanding the much-ballyhooed six-party deal announced in early September in Beijing, there is still no sign of Beijing's cracking down on Pyongyang.

The policies outlined here would represent a considerable change from those of the Bush administration and its immediate predecessors, which too often have kowtowed to China on security and human-rights issues while being bellicose on trade policy. A more sensible approach would be nearly the reverse. Even if this multipronged policy were fully implemented, it might not produce the desired outcome: a prosperous, parliamentary state living and trading peacefully with its neighbors. There is only so much we can do to influence Chinese behavior. But we need to at least try to head off another 1914 or 1941--or even a 1950--before it's too late.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a foreign affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Correction appended, 10/12/05: The piece originally said, "But protectionist lobbies seem intent on sabotaging these gains through shrill harping on such purported Chinese sins as having a strong currency and selling too many bras to American women."

The sentence should read "But protectionist lobbies seem intent on sabotaging these gains through shrill harping on such purported Chinese sins as having a weak currency and selling too many bras to American women."