Avoiding a New Cold War With China
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security advisor to
President Carter when normalization between the United States and China
was formally concluded.
Washington-It is quite evident that the US-Chinese
relationship is deteriorating. It is far less evident that it should be
so. Unfortunately, both sides have contributed to this state of affairs,
though in my judgment the Chinese side is more at fault. It also has more
On the American side, the last two or so years have seen a marked rise
in anti-Chinese rhetoric. The left of the Democratic Party has focused
on Chinese abuses of human rights while the right wing of the Republican
Party has become more outspoken in labeling China as a likely threat.
Moreover, the appearance of a healthy democracy in Taiwan has reduced
some of the earlier Democratic antipathy toward that island's regime while
stimulating an even stronger inclination among the Republicans to support
As a result, the established argument for a cooperative-indeed, once even
a strategic-relationship with China, initiated two decades ago in the
face of a jointly perceived threat from the Soviet Union, has come under
intensified fire. China has even been labeled as America's "strategic
competitor" despite the fact that, according to the recently published
projections of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the country is not expected
to become even "moderately developed" until about the year 2050.
Increasingly, the conventional wisdom on editorial pages and in congressional
debates has taken the form of potentially self-fulfilling predictions
that China, as a rising power, is destined to be America's next enemy.
However, the Chinese side has gone considerably further than the American
in fostering an antagonistic climate in the bilateral relationship. The
American debate has been exactly what the word "debate" implies:
a critical discussion conducted in open and free media by participants
who speak their minds and often disagree. Moreover, apart from that public
debate, the official US position toward Beijing has been restrained, eschewing
any comprehensive indictments of China. Also, as recently as last year,
President Clinton reiterated in Shanghai US respect for the one-China
In contrast, over the last two or so years, the Chinese press controlled
by the government, including the daily organ of the Communist Party, has
been drumbeating the proposition that the US has become a globally domineering
hegemon, aggressive and threatening to global stability. The organs of
the People's Liberation Army have published various articles warning that
America may be planning to repeat against China itself the "aggressive"
tactics that it employed in Kosovo. To make matters worse, top Chinese
leaders, in their official joint statements with like-minded foreign leaders,
have become outspoken in their condemnations of the allegedly American-sponsored
"hegemonic" character of the existing international system.
In brief, over the last several years, the Chinese government has fostered
at home and in joint declarations with other countries a doctrine of antagonism
toward the US. Given that the appeal of communism is waning in China but
that nationalism among the Chinese people is intensifying, there may be
some element of domestic political opportunism in this officially sponsored
It was in this context that the recent air incident occurred. Influenced
perhaps by their own propaganda and probably annoyed by the initial American
public statement, made by a very senior military official, claiming that
the US aircraft enjoyed "sovereign immunity," followed by President
Bush's public request that the aircraft and crew be promptly released,
and with no word of sympathy over the loss of a Chinese life, the Chinese
then overplayed their hand.
Their 11-day-long detention of the US crew, their insistence on a one-sided
acknowledgment of American responsibility for the accident and especially
their heavy-handed use of the American crew as a bargaining chip in order
to exact some sort of an apology have had a most adverse impact on the
American public's perception of China. It was the conduct of an unfriendly
state. As a result, though the Bush administration kept its cool and ably
negotiated an ambiguous expression of regret for the return of the US
personnel, there can be little doubt that Beijing's insistence on the
two little words "very sorry" will prove very expensive for
The belligerent Chinese conduct already made it easier for the US administration
to decide to put together a sizeable defense package for Taiwan. It was
also easier for President Bush in that context to bluntly state that the
US would step in to defend Taiwan, if needed. It will become more difficult
for the administration to push through Congress a renewal of the trade
act, although in the end Congress will probably approve it. It is far
less certain that the US will support holding the Olympics of 2008 in
Beijing, especially given growing American resentment over the arrests
on the mainland of some Chinese scholars, who are residents or even citizens
of the US.
The relationship may thus deteriorate further. This should be a source
of concern for both sides. For America, antagonism with China poses the
risk of greater instability in the Far East. It would be likely to polarize
public opinion in Japan, pushing some toward anti-American pacifism and
some toward anti-Chinese militarism. It will make a peaceful resolution
of the division of Korea much more difficult. At some point, it could
even precipitate a military collision with China over Taiwan, although
for at least a decade or so China will lack the means to undertake any
effective assault on the island.
For China, the consequences would be graver still. Antagonism with America
would be likely to prompt the emergence of an offshore de facto US-Japan-Taiwan
coalition. That would perpetuate indefinitely the separate status of Taiwan.
A serious crisis with America would also have a most adverse long-term
impact on the ßow of foreign capital and technology to China, gravely
impeding China's economic growth. China's ambitions to become modern could
thus be placed in jeopardy.
Both sides should, therefore, cool it and think about it. For America,
a good relationship with China, even if no longer an anti-Moscow partnership,
is needed for the sake of stability in the Far East. China is a major
regional power, but it is neither a global one nor a serious military
threat. In fact, despite having acquired a nuclear capability some 36
years ago, China has been remarkably restrained in the buildup of its
ICBM forces, relying on a truly minimum deterrent of only a score or so
of ICBMs. Engaging China constructively and expanding the scope of social
and economic contacts increase the probability that China will evolve
in a positive direction.
For China, a good relationship with America is the key to a positive future.
Without it, China will find it much more difficult to develop and modernize,
and it will not be able to resolve the issue of Taiwan. The use of force,
even if the Chinese continue to insist on their theoretical right to it,
is not a viable option. America will stand in the way. Unification can
happen only when China can attract Taiwan. It will do so only when it
is both prosperous and democratic. Hostility toward America will advance
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