Living With China

Living With China

Mini Teaser: When applied to China, terms such as "adversary" and "partnet" obscure more than they clarify. A blueprint for American policy rejects both.

by Author(s): Zbigniew Brzezinski

Eurasian politics have replaced European politics as the central
arena of world affairs. Once European wars became evidently
threatening to America, there was no choice for America but to inject
itself into European politics in order to prevent new conflicts from
erupting or a hostile European hegemony from emerging. Thus America's
engagement in world affairs was precipitated during the twentieth
century by European politics. Today, it is the interplay of several
Eurasian powers that is critical to global stability. Accordingly,
America's policy must be transcontinental in its design, with
specific bilateral Eurasian relationships woven together into a
strategically coherent whole.

It is in this larger Eurasian context that U.S.-China relations must
be managed and their importance correctly assessed. Dealing with
China should rank as one of Washington's four most important
international relationships, alongside Europe, Japan and Russia. The
U.S.-China relationship is both consequential and catalytic, beyond
its intrinsic bilateral importance. Unlike some other major bilateral
relationships that are either particularly beneficial or threatening
only to the parties directly involved (America and Mexico, for
example), the U.S.-China relationship impacts significantly on the
security and policies of other states, and it can affect the overall
balance of power in Eurasia.

More specifically, peace in Northeast and Southeast Asia remains
dependent to a significant degree on the state of the U.S.-China
relationship. That relationship also has enormous implications for
U.S.-Japan relations and Japan's definition--for better or worse--of
its political and military role in Asia. Last but not least, China's
orientation is likely to influence the extent to which Russia
eventually concludes that its national interests would best be served
by a closer connection with an Atlanticist Europe; or whether it is
tempted instead by some sort of an alliance with an anti-American

For China, it should be hastily added, the U.S.-China relationship is
also of top-rank importance, alongside its relations with Japan, with
Russia and with India. In fact, for China the Beijing-Washington
interaction is indisputably the most important of the four. It is
central to China's future development and well-being. A breakdown in
the relationship would prompt a dramatic decline in China's access to
foreign capital and technology. Chinese leaders must carefully take
into account that centrally decisive reality whenever they are
tempted to pursue a more assertive policy on behalf of their national
grievances (such as Taiwan) or more ambitious global aspirations
(such as seeking to replace American "hegemony" with "multipolarity").

In essence, then, in the complex American-Chinese equation, Beijing
should be prudent lest its larger ambitions collide with its more
immediate interests, while Washington must be careful lest its
strategic Eurasian interests are jeopardized by tactical missteps in
its handling of China.

It follows that the United States, in defining its longer term China
policy and in responding to the more immediate policy dilemmas, must
have a clearly formulated view of what China is, and is not. There
is, unfortunately, enormous confusion in America on that very
subject. Allegedly informed writings regarding China often tend to be
quite muddled, occasionally even verging toward the hysterical
extremes. As a result, the image of a malignant China as the
inevitably anti-American great power of the 2020s competes in the
American public discourse with glimpses of a benign China gently
transformed by U.S. investors into an immense Hong Kong. Currently,
there is no realistic consensus either among the public or in the
Congress regarding China.

In recent years, inconsistency has also characterized the attitude of
the U.S. government. It is unfortunately the case that the Clinton
administration has been guilty of "vacillation and about-faces on
China, often in response to popular and congressional pressure", that
the President himself was "not willing to protect U.S.-China
relations from tampering by Congress", and that "some in Congress
would destroy the relationship if given the opportunity to do so."
The presidential mishandling in late spring 1999 of the World Trade
Organization (WTO) negotiations with the Chinese and the persisting
inclination of Congress to grandstand on the China issue validate
that indictment.

In addition, public perception of China tends to be defined by
spectacular symbols that allegedly encapsulate the essence of today's
and tomorrow's China. Thus, for many Americans Tiananmen Square and
Tibet have come to reflect the central reality of enduring communist
oppression and of intensifying national chauvinism. For others, the
Chinese economic "miracle", dramatized by the skyscrapers of
Shanghai, and by China's growing free-market openness to the world
through the Internet, travel, and foreign investment, symbolizes a
transforming nation that is progressively shedding its communist
veneer. Which China, then, is the real China, and with which China
will America clash or cohabit in the years to come?

Having digested much of the available literature on Chinese
political, economic and military prospects, and having dealt with the
Chinese for almost a quarter of a century, I believe that the point
of departure toward an answer has to be the recognition of an obvious
but fundamental reality: China is too big to be ignored, too old to
be slighted, too weak to be appeased, and too ambitious to be taken
for granted. A major and ancient civilization--encompassing 20
percent of the world's population organized in a historically unique
continuity as a single nation-state, and driven simultaneously by a
sense of national grievance over perceived (and, in many cases, real)
humiliations over the last two centuries, but also by growing and
even arrogant self-confidence--China is already a major regional
player, though not strong enough to contest at this time either
America's global primacy or even its preponderance in the Far Eastern

China's military strength, both current and likely over the next
decade or so, will not be capable of posing a serious threat to the
United States itself, unless China's leaders were to opt for national
suicide. The Chinese nuclear force has primarily a deterrent
capability. The Chinese military build-up has been steady but neither
massive nor rapid, nor technologically very impressive. It is also
true, however, that China is capable of imposing on America
unacceptable costs in the event that a local conflict in the Far East
engages vital Chinese interests but only peripheral American ones. In
this sense, China's military power is already regionally significant,
and it is growing.

Nonetheless, unlike the former Soviet Union, the People's Republic of
China (PRC) is not capable of posing a universal ideological
challenge to the United States, especially as its communist system is
increasingly evolving into oligarchical nationalist statism with
inherently more limited international appeal. It is noteworthy that
China is not involved in any significant international revolutionary
activities, while its controversial arms exports are driven either by
commercial or bilateral state interests. (As such, they are not very
different from those of France or Israel, with the latter actually
exporting weapons technology to China.)

Moreover, in recent years China's international conduct has been
relatively restrained. China did not exercise its veto to halt
UN-sanctioned military actions against Iraq over Kuwait. Nor did it
block the Security Council's approval of the international
protectorate in Kosovo. It approved the deployment of UN peacekeepers
in East Timor, and--unlike India in the case of Goa, or Indonesia
when it seized East Timor--it peacefully re-acquired Hong Kong and
more recently Macau. China also acted responsibly during the Asian
financial crisis of 1998, for which it was internationally applauded.
Last but not least, its current efforts to gain membership of the
WTO, whatever the merits or demerits of China's negotiating stance,
signal the PRC's growing interest in global multilateral cooperation.

Internal Contradictions

The picture becomes more mixed when the domestic scene in China is
scrutinized and when current Chinese views of the United States are
taken into account. China is basically unfinished business. Its
communist revolution has run out of steam. Its post-communist
reformation has been partially successful, particularly at the
urban-industrial-commercial levels, but this has required major
doctrinal concessions and compromises. The result is that the Chinese
system is a hybrid, with strong residues of communist dogmatism in
the industrial sectors and in the state bureaucracy coexisting
uneasily with dynamic, capitalist entrepreneurship driven by foreign
investment. China's future systemic orientation is thus yet to be
fully defined, but it is already evident that the cohabitation within
it of communism and commercialism is inherently contradictory.

The trajectories of China's economic change and of its political
evolution are thus parting. At some point, the distance between them
will become too wide to sustain. Something, then, will have to give.
Moreover, the existing political elite--itself not so young--will
soon be replaced by a generation that came to political maturity
neither during the Great Leap Forward nor during the Cultural
Revolution, both epiphenomena of communist doctrinal exuberance. The
emerging political elite matured during Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic
upheaval in the Chinese economy, and hence may be more inclined to
correct the political trajectory of China's evolution, bringing it
closer to the economic trajectory.

The issue of human rights is thus likely to become more acute as the
political regime seeks one way or another to close the gap between
itself and its evolving socioeconomic context. The constraints on
personal political liberty, the denial of religious freedom, and the
suppression of minorities--most notably in Tibet--cannot be sustained
in a setting of growing social and economic pluralism. The recent
efforts to suppress the Falun Gong movement testify to the regime's
sense of ideological and political vulnerability. Accordingly, the
issue of freedom is bound to become both more critical and more
difficult for the existing regime to manage. Indeed, it is almost
safe to predict that in the near future--probably within the coming
decade--China will experience a serious political crisis.

Essay Types: Essay