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
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
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.
ECONOMIC BONDS STILL TIE US AND CHINA
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
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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