October 19th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Bush changes US strategic doctrine

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: ALP Conference: triumph of 'spin' over substance

CANBERRA OBSERVED: PM's loopy housing scheme evades rebuke

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Social 'reforms': Rann's devious politics

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Yes - it is about oil, and arms, and ... doublethink

SUGAR: Behind the sugar crisis

OBITUARY: Ted Serong: a great Australian

FINANCE: A $50 billion war chest for the ALP?

LETTERS: Superannuation and the ALP (letter)

LETTERS: Democrats (letter)

LETTERS: Life matters (letter)

WATER: Wimmera-Mallee major water conservation project underway

CHINA: China will remain the major challenge to America

COMMENT: Share collapse: we've seen it all before

BUSINESS: Just how 'ethical' can business be?

COMMENT: Dysfunctional Victoria

BOOKS: Wilful murder: the Sinking of the Lusitania, by Diana Preston

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China will remain the major challenge to America

by Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, October 19, 2002
Of all Asia-related issues, China represents the most daunting challenge for the Bush Administration. Some Americans express fear of the rise of Chinese power. With a growing economy, Chinese military strength is likely to increase over the next few decades. Even if that does not make China a global power or one regionally equivalent to the United States, it does mean that China is likely to look more awesome to its neighbours, and its enhanced capabilities will mean that any American military tasks will require greater forces and resources than is presently the case.

Is China a peaceful status quo power seeking to incorporate itself into the world system? Or is it a revisionist state with a chip on its shoulder, out to settle old scores with the West? In answering these questions, analysts examine China's intentions, capabilities and national interests.

Because intentions are not self-evident, foreign policy analysts have generally focused their attention on China's national power. One group infers intent directly from capabilities. The Washington Times' Bill Gertz points to every Chinese arms acquisition as evidence of Chinese revisionism. The Brookings Institution's Bates Gill and Michael O'Hanlon also infer intent from capabilities, but reach the opposite conclusion: China does not pose a threat. It is not a superpower, and in a head-to-head fight the United States would win hands down. Americans can therefore sleep easy. The debate about US resolve in China continues.

America's China policy

American foreign policy is as puzzling to Chinese as Chinese foreign policy is to Americans. The focus here is on bilateral conflicts of interest and on their domestic political context.

At the beginning of the new Bush Administration, two schools of thought dominate the American China policy debate. One school of thought, represented by Colin Powell and Condolezza Rice, does not view China as America's "inevitable foe", and the US continues to adhere to a "One China Policy" while observing its defence obligations to Taiwan.

Another policy faction projects a much harder line toward Beijing. Led by Senator Jesse Helms, Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this faction "wants Bush to focus on the China threat in terms of its rising military power, its hostility toward Taiwan and its suspect human rights record. It is particularly keen to capitalise on the President's public support of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA) that encourages upgraded US military ties with Taipei." It also supports "the introduction of theatre missile defences to augment Taiwan's defence".

According to this school of thought, the United States should therefore act toward China not as a "strategic partner" but as it treated the Soviet Union during the Cold War: as a rival and a challenge, reducing trade wherever possible to non-strategic items, creating an alliance of Asian states to contain China or, failing that, building up Japan to help America share the burden for the defence of Asia and the containment of China.

Advocates of this point of view would treat Taiwan as an independent country and, in practice, scrap the "One China" policy on which Sino-American relations have been based since diplomatic contacts were re-established in 1971.

Taiwan is thus a prominent issue on the US-China agenda. Without the American defence commitment, Taiwan might have been integrated into the PRC long ago. This is why Beijing considers that the heart of the "Taiwan problem" is not Taiwan's separation from the mainland but the American role in perpetuating it.

The world community has determined as a matter of practice that Taiwan is part of China and the United States continues to provide a security guarantee that prevents China from enforcing unification on Taiwan.

Many Chinese believe that the United States wants to separate Taiwan from China permanently. While this is not the expressed intent of US policy, so far it has been the policy's effect.

For Beijing, the worry is that the ruling Democratic Progress Party of Taiwan has expressed opposition to Beijing's "One China" policy. The party has a long-standing policy which supports a referendum on declaring Taiwan independent. Both China and Taiwan disagree on what ‘One-China' means. The PRC says that there is but one China in the world, that the PRC is the sole legal government of China, and that Taiwan is part of China. The ROC says that "there has always been a China in history and that in the future there will be only one, but that now there are two political entities on an equal footing."

All this can mean the task for the ROC and the US is to watch carefully what develops. However problematic, the American commitment to the security of Taiwan has roots in both grand strategy and domestic politics. It has been maintained by Republican and Democratic administrations and supported by Congress for over half a century, and is not likely to change.

However, American support has been promised only for Taiwan's defence against unprovoked mainland attack, not for independence. It appears that Taiwan's security has been guaranteed not by how well Taiwan manages relations with the mainland but by how well it manages relations with the United States.

To be sure that the United States win offer real support when it is needed, Taiwan needs to cultivate its American ties tirelessly.

Washington must maintain a Taiwan policy that enables the United States to protect both common US-Taiwan interests and America's interest in stable relations with the PRC. It can do so by reminding Beijing of the costs of any use of force against Taiwan, by providing Taiwan with the security it needs, and by maintaining economic and cultural ties with Taiwan.

Nuclear weapons

A second prominent issue on the US-China agenda is arms proliferation.

From the US perspective, the concern is not with all Chinese arms sales but with certain transfers that Washington believes either upset regional power balances or contribute to the spread of technologies of mass destruction. American policy has persuaded Chinese leaders that missile and nuclear weapons sales to US adversaries, including such states as Syria and Iran, would undermine relations.

In response to US pressure, China has accommodated many US demands. The PRC, for example, stopped supplying Silkworm missiles to Iran, broke its commitment to provide Syria with M-9 missiles, and suspended its nuclear energy cooperation agreement with Iran.

Trade relations have created a third set of US-China problems. The arenas of conflict are diverse, including negotiations on opening markets and on intellectual property rights protection. The American economy benefits from access to the Chinese market, and Washington continues to push China to expand foreign access to its market and to protect Western copyrights and patents. America's economic bargaining power with China is high.

Beijing has made many compromises on trade issues. It has lowered trade barriers and taken steps to curtail piracy of intellectual property. Still, neither the trade imbalance nor the intellectual property rights conflict is susceptible to quick resolution; the trade deficit has continued to grow, and Chinese copyright pirates have found new ways to evade the rules. US-China trade crises re-emerge periodically to threaten cooperative relations.

Finally, a broad sector of American opinion shows concern about the problem of human rights in China. The problem encompasses such specific issues as political and religious prisoners, torture, repression in Tibet, and the use of coercion in China's population control program.

The Chinese Government takes the position that these, are internal affairs that brook no interference from foreign governments, organisations, or individuals. Beijing believes that human rights should include rights to life and existence, the right to development and social and cultural rights. It emphasises the superiority of collective rights over individual rights. Ultimately, human rights to Beijing leaders are essentially matters within the domestic jurisdiction of a country, and there is no universal criterion to judge one country's human rights situation without considering each country's development, history and traditions.

Beijing, therefore, accuses Washington of imposing its own criteria on other countries as a superior one. The American position is that there exist universal human rights norms and that their violation is a matter of international concern. Thus, a gap exists between the two governments on the concepts and criteria of human rights. There also exist different perceptions/attitudes.

The average American does not understand Chinese objectives, their leaders, or their intentions. On the other hand, Chinese people equally do not understand the American society.

There are differences between the American attitude and that of the Chinese. China is still under totalitarian control; her attitude toward the United States has been rigid; and the method for choosing her political leaders is by purge.

A democratic society, such as that in the United States, does not believe in rigidity; its foreign policy aim at flexibility; and its method for choosing political leaders is by voting. Even the popular games in these two countries are different. Chess is the popular game of China; bridge is a popular game in America.


In chess there is a definite goal, to capture the opposing King; a definite pattern of strategy is developed. In bridge one simply tries to win each separate hand as it is haphazardly dealt; a different strategy must be used for each hand. Thus, China should have a definite goal and has been developing a definite pattern of strategy.

The United States, on the other hand, has simply faced each crisis as it occurred, as in Korea, Cuba, the Formosa Strait, Vietnam, and now the "war on terrorism"; there has been no pattern of strategy in these crises.

Then what is the real objective of Beijing, and what does it want? Beijing is contending for the leadership of the 21st century. China, the largest and economically most dynamic newly emerging power in the history of the world. It intends to take its place in this century as a great power.

When rising powers join the world system, they want to remake rules that they did not shape and, that they do not see as serving their interests. The established powers find it difficult to share leadership with them. The leaders of established and rising powers have often failed to see beyond conflicts of interest, which are real, to deeper common interests. As Professor Rosita Dellios of Bond University put it:

"The conflicts in US-China relations now rest with a Chinese desire to transform the existing relationships of power, where alliances are pledged, to more egalitarian relationships of loose partnerships based on multipolar, rather than uni or bipolar relations."

It is in the "thwarting of this endeavour that we are seeing a strengthening of contention, rather than cooperation, between the established and sole superpower, the USA, and the emergent superpower of the 21st century, the PRC. This contention is not a Cold War revisited, but a subtle play for world order legitimacy. How the world might best be run is an issue of governance."

In defining a place for itself in a changing world, China faces fundamental dilemmas. To exercise a major power role, it needs to collaborate with UN-based peacekeeping mechanisms, world trading norms, international human rights activities and arms control regimes. But in doing so it ratifies US dominance and compromises its own freedom of action.

A permanent dialogue with China on such issues as the war on terrorism, the future of Korea and proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technology is needed as the best means to create a more stable world.

Coral Bell, an Australian academic, in an article in The National Interest, has described America's challenge: "to recognise its own pre-eminence but to conduct its policy as if it were still living in a world of many centres of power."

In such a world, the United States will find partners not only by sharing the psychological burdens of leadership, but also by shaping an international order consistent with freedom and democracy.

  • Sharif Shuja lectures at the University of Melbourne

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