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PERSPECTIVE ON ASIA : Its Neighbors Want a Strong China : Modernization means markets, social stability and less reliance on military might. But the U.S. must stay involved.

<i> Michel Oksenberg is president of the East-West Center in Honolulu. </i>

From Tokyo and Seoul to Canberra, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, one finds a broad consensus about six points concerning China. Given the wide range of views among Asian thinkers on most issues, this consensus is striking.

First, it is generally believed that the underlying fundamentals for China’s continued, rapid economic growth are sound: a populace with a propensity to save and hence a high rate of capital accumulation; an entrepreneurial tradition; a basically sound natural-resource endowment; a leadership that has been deft in guiding the economy; the magnetic pull of the region as a whole; a propitious international setting, and the assistance available from Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and North America. Of course, major uncertainties and constraints exist as well, and Asian leaders and China specialists differ on the severity of China’s domestic difficulties, though these are generally seen to be short- and medium-term impediments.

A second part of the Asian consensus is that the entire region would suffer if China’s modernization failed, if China suffered the chaos that Russia is now experiencing, or if major social instability and unrest occurred. Disorder would spill across China’s border, certainly affecting Hong Kong and probably Taiwan, and prompting substantial population migration to other destinations as well. More important, because most Asians have begun to view China’s dynamic economy as a major locomotive for regional growth, they have concluded that a massive political and economic failure in China would damage their own future as well.

Third, and most important, if China does continue its rapid economic development, the eventual outcome is something Asians anticipate with a mixture of apprehension and optimism. They recognize that China will be a formidable market competitor, and that the next generation of leaders--no matter who they are--will seek military might as the economy permits. That is, in the view of most Asian leaders, China is determined to be a complete power, transforming the strategic map of Asia.

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As for the China-watchers’ optimism, that springs from some self-confidence that China’s economic growth will provide the region with attractive markets and investment opportunities, and that China can be woven into webs of economic interdependence before it attains genuine force projection capabilities. There is also some confidence that the countries on China’s periphery, from Japan and Korea to India, have the wherewithal--assisted by America’s continued military presence in the region--to balance and counter assertive tendencies that may emanate from Beijing. However, the Asians also feel confident that they will not have to subordinate their China policies to the dictates of the United States, as was the case in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The fourth point of broad consensus among Asian leaders centers on an awareness of Chinese pride and Beijing’s prickly sensitivity to issues of sovereignty. Most Asians will studiously avoid gratuitously insulting Beijing’s leaders, and they will distance themselves from such affronts by others. Many Asian leaders are even encouraging Beijing to resist American efforts to impose our values on China. In this regard, many identify somewhat with China’s reaction to the American human-rights agenda.

This leads to the fifth point: the Asians’ desire for the United States to sustain a constructive relationship with China. They recognize that an effective strategic dialogue and an extensive economic relationship between China and the United States are essential to maintenance of stability in Korea, a peaceful evolution of the Taiwan issue and the continued prosperity of Southeast Asia. They recognize that simultaneously good relations among China, Japan and the United States are key to the entire region’s stability; they fear that tensions among these major powers would force the others to choose sides. They agree that the continued American presence and positive Sino-American-Japanese relations since the mid-1970s have brought unprecedented stability and prosperity to the region.

Finally, Asia’s leaders are prepared to diverge from U.S. policy if the United States ends up with an adversarial relationship with China. They feel that the accomplishments of the government of China in the past decade, despite the many blemishes and the tragedy of June 4, 1989, merit respect rather than scorn.

I am convinced that if the United States retreats from the historical task of incorporating China into the emerging Asia-Pacific community of nations, then those countries--Japan, Korea, Australia, the ASEAN states, Burma, Pakistan and possibly even India, Vietnam and Russia--will pursue that task without us. They have too much at stake to abandon the effort that most of them began, with American encouragement, in the 1970s and ‘80s; they feel that the strategy of engagement is working.

Americans are now debating whether to link extension of China’s favored trade status to its human-rights record. But the broader strategic choice for the United States is whether it wishes to continue the path of engagement pursued since 1972 or isolate itself from the China policies being pursued by our allies and friends in the region. The trade penalty would push the United States in the latter direction.


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