Today's date:
Summer 2001


Hot Peace"-Not Cold War-Between the US and China

Wang Jisi is director of the Institute for American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Beijing-The present China-US relationship is too complex for any simple definition such as the Bush administration's notion of "strategic competitors.'' It is an undeniable reality, though, that what might be called "structural'' tensions between the two giants are greater today than at any time since Mao Tse-tung and Richard Nixon decided to end confrontation 30 years ago.

Yet, to my mind, the current state of affairs is best characterized as a "hot peace,'' not a new "cold war.'' Some defense intellectuals in Washington seem intent on shifting the US strategic focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, aimed mainly at the rise of China. The Bush administration is strengthening its security ties with Japan, Australia and others in Asia at the expense of the already very shaky strategic understanding between Washington and Beijing. The planned US missile defense system, designed partly to cover Japan and Taiwan, are seen in Beijing as a move to neutralize China's strategic deterrent. In addition, George W. Bush's recent decision to sell destroyers and submarines to Taiwan, along with other advanced weaponry, may serve the goal of giving more confidence to the pro-independence elements in Taipei and challenging Beijing's capabilities to use force, if necessary, against possible secession of the island from China. Some US media have now begun to refer to China as an "evil empire,'' formerly a code word for the Soviet Union. This poisoned atmosphere in China-US relations has apparently contributed to some damaged images of Chinese Americans, as shown by a recent national survey conducted in the US. Nearly one-half of those surveyed felt that Chinese-Americans "passing secrets to the Chinese government'' is a problem.

For political elites in China, the stark fact is that America provides sanctuary to representatives from virtually all of the anti-government groups inside the country, from separatists in Tibet to Falun Gong, that are threatening the political order at home. They have ample reasons to believe that China is still a victim of the existing world order that favors the West, and that the US leads and symbolizes international schemes to prevent the Chinese nation from rising into a great power. Faced with the militarily superior US now led by "hawks,'' few Chinese citizens doubt the necessity to modernize their armed forces. Quarrels between the Chinese and American governments are nothing new.
What is new and more alarming is that the general publics in both countries are increasingly negative in their mutual regard. In recent disputes, some Chinese and Americans discharged their anger by attacking each other's Web sites. Media reports and online publications on both sides are increasingly incendiary, focusing on American and Chinese war machines and military planning. Anti-PRC demonstrations are frequently held in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington. Without tightened Chinese police control, anti-US demonstrations near the American embassy in Beijing would be a daily event.

What is also new and more depressing is that government officials and policy analysts in the two countries seem to have lost confidence and patience in a constructive relationship based on common interests. In the past, a number of Chinese and Americans believed that, to borrow one of Mao's phrases, "the road is tortuous, but the future is bright.''

On the Chinese side, the anticipation was that a less ideological, more "practical'' US policy toward China would be produced by, among other things, American recognition of China's economic success and the profits it yielded for US companies. More contact with the US Congress and media was also expected to help correct the distorted picture of China.

On the American side, many hoped that China's economic reform would lead to significant political changes they would like to see, and that by way of "engaging China'' the younger generations of Chinese would be more cosmopolitan in their outlook-thus more "pro-American'' and less nationalistic.

Unfortunately, events in recent years have proved to both sides that the road may be more tortuous and the future darker than anticipated. These structural problems, reinforced by deepening mutual suspicions, will probably persist for years to come. While no dramatic event like Nixon's historic visit to Beijing would likely reverse the downward trend in the relationship, any single incident such as the recent collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US spy plane could precipitate a new crisis.


Fortunately, the present political difficulties between Beijing and Washington have not thus far spilled over into the economic realm. The unprecedented institutionalization of US-Chinese engagement, firmly grounded over recent years, serves as a thick cushion against collapse. The Chinese mainland is the fourth biggest trade partner of America.

Comprehensively measured, the US is China's greatest partner for its modernization drive. Billions of dollars of American investment still flow into China, and China's determination to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) remains undiminished. Weekly direct flights between Chinese and American cities have almost doubled since 1999 and are always almost full. Educated Chinese cannot do without Microsoft products and Hollywood movies, and American consumers are enjoying the low-priced goods marked "Made in China.''

Equally significant is the exchange of views and visits as well as cooperation in various forms between Chinese and US government agencies, among scholars, students, scientists, lawyers and other common people. At higher political levels, channels of communication are kept active and effective.

However, such "business as usual'' engagement does not make news, especially in this "information age.'' Rather, sensational media reports about an emerging "cold war'' between China and the United States are attracting more public attention.

In the Cold War years, though, extensive economic and societal interaction, such as that between China and the US today, never happened between the adversaries. The Cold War was characterized by the "iron curtain'' that severed commercial ties, information interflow and personal contact.

Rather than a renewed Cold War, the current state of China-US relations can be better described as a "hot peace''-an intensity of interaction marked, yes, by heated rhetorical accusations against each other, but also by ever increasing trade, investment and tourism.

Certainly, a real military conflict between the two countries is theoretically imaginable, particularly over Taiwan. Both are making worst-case military planning for such a catastrophic war. Each is doing, and will continue to do, many things that the other feels very unfriendly and disturbing.

Yet, neither power would gain anything from a head-on US-PRC military confrontation. War between them will remain remote and avoidable, however, only if Beijing and Washington base their policies toward each other on rationalized national interests-such as China's entry into the WTO-rather than self-fullfilling prophecies that regard conflict as inevitable.

To prevent turning this hot peace into a hot war, the China-US relationship must be de-militarized and de-sensationalized.
In fact, in the one area-Taiwan-where a China-US war is most likely to take place, the situation is less ominous today than previously.

Since the Spring of 2000, when Chen Shui-bian took the leadership in Taiwan, internal politics on that island have been messy, and pro-independence elements have refrained from being too provocative. On the mainland side, Beijing has maintained a soft, "wait-and-see'' approach toward Chen Shui-bian, with the hope that the ongoing economic integration across the Taiwan Strait will provide more leverage for Beijing to achieve peaceful reunification.
This contrasts sharply with the hardened attitude toward Chen's predecessor, Lee Teng-hui. In Shanghai alone, more than 100,000 Taiwanese citizens have settled down as a large business community. American encouragement of, and participation in, such an integration process would be the most effective way to reduce cross-strait tensions and thus reduce the chances for a China-US conflict to break out.

Quiet diplomacy and strategic dialogue are better ways to manage crises and develop shared visions. Diplomacy is an art. Unlike many other government affairs, diplomacy is never a democratic process, and public participation should not be encouraged if it is to succeed.

Given the political atmospherics in both countries, sensational stories and self-righteous statements about China-US relations will continue from both sides, doing little to improve popular perception of common interests. That makes it all the more important that policymakers and their advisers in the US and China extend channels to discuss strategic concerns and explore ways to improve public perception and promote common interests.

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