US-China: Cooperation, not containment

Asia Times

BEIJING - Perhaps in a few centuries the Cold War will be regarded as a turning point in military doctrine, as the first true, total war in which both economic and political apparatus were fully used to cripple the enemy and the actual direct use of armed force was scarcer than in previous confrontations.

The war, however, was very similar to those religious clashes of past centuries in Europe. In fact, in latter-day Europe it was fought more bitterly along clear ideological divides where the defection first of Yugoslavia, then of Albania, did not significantly alter the total balance of power between the two blocs, as the two countries remained neutral.

It was much different in Asia where the second most powerful country of the socialist bloc, China, broke with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the 1960s, clearly edged towards the United States in the 1970s before fully siding with America in the 1980s - albeit while the sides still maintained their ideological differences. It is still hard to evaluate the impact of the strong alliance established by the US administration of Jimmy Carter with Deng Xiaoping's China, but certainly it significantly helped tip the balance against the Soviet Union and bring the Cold War to its conclusion.

It did so in several ways. One was the concrete, joint containment measures against the USSR. These included exchanges of information, US intelligence centers that were established in China, pressure on other Asian nations not to side with Moscow and the substantial support in isolating pro-Soviet Vietnam in an attempt to contain the spread of communism in the region.

In return for this help, the United States sustained the faltering Chinese economy and China stopped all pretenses of spreading its own variation of communism. In the 1980s, Beijing stopped supporting the different Asian communist guerrilla forces and the new working agreement between the old regional power, China, and the new regional protagonist, the United States, bolstered the presence of both nations in the region.

On the one hand, East Asian nations could once again trade with China without fear of being subverted by its communism or coming under pressure from Washington. On the other hand, the United States better secured its influence in the region without antagonizing China and with Soviet challenges in the region in check.

Furthermore, in the early 1980s China modernized and opened up its markets and was able to make huge, successful strides in its economy. This took place just when the Soviet economy was mired in troubles and as the United States was pushing ahead with its plan to bring down the USSR by forcing it into a arms race that would bankrupt its system. In retrospect, we can see that the Chinese experience prompted the USSR to experiment with previously dreaded reforms of the socialist system.

These experiments were led by Mikhael Gorbachov, who in May 1989 paid homage to Deng by traveling to Beijing. This essentially opened the way to the peaceful collapse of the USSR, which dissolved into thin air without much ado from the rest of the world and certainly without the bloody wars that would normally be expected during the collapse of an empire.

In return for this support, neither the Carter administration, which first expressed concerns over human rights in the late 1970s, nor the ensuing Reagan administration in the 1980s, made much fuss about the status of China's rights record, which was then certainly poorer than in the subsequent decade.

The price for this compromise was that communist China was able to survive when the USSR collapsed in 1992 and the Cold War thus ended. For a few more years it was still not clear where China stood in this brave new world nor exactly how it should be handled by the United States.

In the 1990s, a huge debate arose in the United States over a possible Chinese threat. It was was waged against a backdrop of an ongoing trade confrontation with Japan. Companies from that country had aggressively moved forward along the path of technological advances. They grew on a sophisticated link of financial, industrial and government interests that allowed them to raise huge capital, which in turn allowed them to have very costly, but also very effective, long-term strategies.

The Japanese market was then essentially closed to penetration by US companies, while Japanese firms invaded the United States. Exchanges between US and European companies had been and were still on a much more equal footing. Yet, by the early 1990s, the United States had essentially won its technological and commercial war with Japan and Tokyo was set on the crisis path from which it has yet to recover.

At that time, China's power started looming with aggressive double-digit growth within a protected economy and a still officially intact socialist belief. In a nutshell, from Washington's point of view it was the return of a nightmare - only in double form: the Soviet and Japanese threat combined.

This is what appears to worry hardline American thinkers today. And this appears to be the red thread behind the ideas of containment emerging after the April Fool's day air incident, when the US EP-3 surveillance plane landed on a Chinese military airfield after colliding with a Chinese interceptor.

The apparent goal seems to pre-empt the growth of a threatening China that would challenge the Pax Americana both on an economic and on an ideological front. It doesn't matter whether this threat is real, or false, as Beijing claims. What is more to the point is that containment/confrontation policies of the kind used with the Soviet or the Japanese, and of the kind apparently under consideration in the United States now, are extremely difficult to execute and are potentially counterproductive for the United States.

However, even if the threat were to be real, the only effective American response would be that of a "corruption" of China, its Americanization attained through a very cooperative partnership.

Tomorrow: Part 2: Hard choices for hardliners (2001-05-31 Asia Times)


+MoreOther Commentary