Thoughts on the Sino-American Relationship

 In late May, China's tough, quiet new President Hu Jintao took another carefully considered step towards confronting the United States on a global scale.

 In late May, China's tough, quiet new President Hu Jintao took another carefully considered step towards confronting the United States on a global scale. Visiting Moscow only days before U.S. President George W. Bush met President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Hu was an honored guest of the Russian leader in Moscow. And he used the occasion to renew his commitment to a broad alliance led by the two giant Eurasian nations dedicated to blocking and rolling back U.S. global hegemony. "The trend towards a multi-polar world is irreversible and dominant," Hu told an audience at Moscow's State Institute of International Relations. He pledged to intensify Russian-Chinese cooperation and to oppose unilateral actions by any country -- diplomatic code words for unilateral military activities by the United States undertaken without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, where both Russia and China weld permanent veto powers.

And on June 1, Putin and Hu both attended a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that Putin and Hu's predecessor, President Jiang Zemin set up two years ago this month to oppose U.S. penetration of Central Asia. 

In Washington, a remarkable number of highly influential strategists, think tank foreign policy analysts and special interests believe China will be the superpower adversary the United States must contain over the next half century.  They maintain a superpower contest with China will define the next 50 years, just as two world wars with Germany dominated American foreign and military policies in the first half of the 20th century, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union dominated the second half of the century.  They point to China's desire to promote a "strategic partnership" with Russia to counterbalance the United States as evidence of this trend. 

Such views are simplistic, moralistic and based on ignorance of the complexities of life in the other nation. But as relations between the two Pacific Rim giants deteriorate, especially over Taiwan, there is a growing danger they will be embraced as obvious truth on both sides. For if Chinese officials fail to grasp the complexities of American pluralist democracy and political life, American politicians, analysts and journalists often pay no attention to Chinese concerns and experiences either. 

Americans in general are ignorant of the details and subtleties of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué that has been the bedrock of good Sino-American relations over the past three decades. Americans tend to see Taiwan as a long-established U.S. ally and independent democracy. They do not realize that Chinese see it instead as an integral part of historic China that was artificially cut off from the rest of the country during the Cold War. Also, the United States has never been significantly invaded or occupied by a foreign power since its War of Independence, which ended 220 years ago. 

By contrast, China still has hundreds of millions of people who remember --or who learned firsthand from their parents -- the appalling sufferings of war, massacre, foreign conquest, famine and chaos that followed the collapse of the Manchu Empire in 1911, until China was unified under Mao Zedong in 1949. 

With the horrors of this recent history still fresh, Chinese still regard the presence of powerful foreign forces, representing nations from halfway around the world, as potential threats to fragment them again, in which case the old nightmares could rapidly return. 

China does not have a national ideology comparable to Soviet Communism after 1917 -- or even, to Mao's Communist regime after 1949.  And the American people show no interest or appetite for foreign wars or conquest. The Korean and Vietnam wars -- now respectively over for half a century and nearly three decades -- removed any desire they had for any serious military adventures on the Asian mainland. 

But before the Al-Qaeda mega-terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, leading Bush Administration strategists, conditioned by the habits of half a century of confrontation with the Soviet Union, had already singled out China as the rising superpower fated to challenge America's global dominance. And many Chinese military planners and diplomats, their patience long exhausted by endless American lectures on everything from the Three Gorges Dam to the Dalai Lama, believe the U.S. government in Washington manipulates all such protests like a spider manipulating its web. 

Both views are simplistic, determinist and simply wrong. But there are powerful interests in both countries only too happy to believe them. Before the horrors of 9/11, American hard-line neoconservatives clearly wanted to have a super-enemy to replace the Soviet Union on the world scene.  They also wanted to be able to paint President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore as weaklings unwilling to defend America's allies and interests. Major U.S. arms companies wanted to be free to make lucrative arms sales to Taiwan. The Taiwanese themselves have powerful friends, lobbyists and influence in Washington. 

In Beijing, too, international tensions have served domestic political -- and other -- interests. Former President Jiang Zemin and his Prime Minister Zhu Rongji championed China's entry into the World Trade Organization. But new President Hu Jintao is still struggling to free himself from the incubus of Jiang's powerful heirs controlling the Beijing and Shanghai Communist Party machines in the internal political struggle to dominate China's so-called "Fourth Generation" of political leaders.  With communist ideology dead as a dodo across China, playing the xenophobic nationalist card against the United States, especially in the drive to reintegrate Taiwan with the Mainland, is a powerful distraction from huge domestic economic and social problems. 

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