DIPLOMACY : An Escalating Fear of China Complicates Already Complex U.S.-Sino Relations

Maurice J. Meisner is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His new book, "The Reign of Deng Xiaoping: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism," will be published by Hill & Wang next year

China has emerged as a great power in an era when many of the traditional great powers--Britain, France and Russia, for example--are declining. The rise of China has long been predicted--but still the world trembles.

Western fears of China and the Chinese are hardly new. Images of "Mongol hordes" have been imprinted on Western minds for many centuries. The Western invention of the "Yellow Peril" in the late 19th Century merged into 20th-Century images of an overwhelming mass of faceless Chinese soldiers using "human sea" tactics against outnumbered Western opponents. This, in turn, was transformed into the specter of "a billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons," as Ronald Reagan once ominously said.

Yet, during Reagan's presidency, Sino-U.S. relations, if not warm, were reasonably stable--at least in comparison with the current state of open hostility and frightening confrontation.

In the last few months, the U.S. visit of President Lee Teng-Hui of Taiwan, as easily foreseen, called into question the "one-China" policy. This policy provided the framework of stability that nurtured the development of U.S.-China relations for more than two decades.

But now, ambassadors have been recalled. Chinese missiles have been tested off the shores of Taiwan. Beijing's arrest of human-rights activist Harry Wu turned into a major diplomatic confrontation. The United States threatened to use military force to keep shipping lanes open in the South China Sea. And the two countries publicly quarreled over seemingly trivial matters of diplomatic protocol: Should Chinese President Jiang Zemin visit Washington for a "working lunch" (with a 19-gun salute) or a state dinner (with a 21-gun salute)? Unable to resolve this weighty matter, Presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang grudgingly agreed to meet in New York on Tuesday--when both will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

The waves of Sinophobia that have swept over the United States and the West are not entirely due to the suppression of the 1989 democracy movement. The Tian An Men Square massacre was, of course, repulsive, but it suggested a Chinese government that was weak and unpopular--inspiring contempt more than fear. Rather, Western fears of China began in earnest only in 1993--when the World Bank calculated that China's economy was the world's third largest, and was growing most rapidly.

Fears were intensified when CIA analysts estimated that China had replaced Japan as the world's second-largest economic power and projected the Chinese economy would surpass in size that of the United States within a generation.

Economic power often translates into military power, so it is hardly surprising that there has been much alarmist talk recently about Chinese expansionism. In the past few years, China has increasingly been portrayed by Western politicians as politically unstable and potentially aggressive, its rapidly growing military budget (though only a fraction of the U.S. military budget) posing a threat to peace in Asia and, perhaps, the world. Old Cold War terms have been revived, with some now proposing a policy of "containment" to meet the new Chinese threat.

The growing fear of China's economic and military power has contributed greatly to the rapid deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations in the past six months. Chronic tension between the two countries over China's "most favored nation" status (a status enjoyed by virtually all countries) was seemingly resolved last year when the Clinton Administration delinked trade and its judgments about human rights. But in early May, in a bit of mischief-making that united liberal chic with right-wing GOP habit, both houses of Congress passed resolutions demanding that Taiwan's president be allowed to visit the United States. Clinton quickly succumbed, departing from the "one-China" policy set forth by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972. Adhered to by both Republican and Democratic administrations for more than two decades, it was policy, as understood by all sides, that precluded trips to the U.S. by top Taiwan government officials.

Beijing's reaction to Lee's "private visit" to Cornell University in June was predictable. Seemingly promising talks between Taiwan and the People's Republic to settle disputes on such matters as fishing and immigration were suspended, as was a dialogue between Lee and Jiang on "peaceful reunification." The Chinese ambassador to Washington was recalled. And in July and August, China conducted tests of advanced missiles less than a hundred miles off Taiwan.

The missile demonstrations, coming soon after a series of underground nuclear tests, revived fears of Chinese military expansionism--directed not only against Taiwan but also Hong Kong, Tibet and the oil-rich Spartley Islands. Fears of China were not alleviated by the arrest of Harry Wu and clumsy Chinese attempts to restrict the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing and the associated meeting of non-governmental organizations. Amid barrages of anti-Chinese commentary in the media and in Congress, Sino-U.S. relations sunk to levels of hostility unknown since the 1960s.

Wu's problems will soon fade from public memory, as will the crude tactics of the Chinese security apparatus. But the territorial issues, among which Taiwan is by far the most important, remain.

Yet, the threat of Chinese expansionism has been greatly exaggerated. Neither in rhetoric nor deed is there any indication that Beijing seeks territories other than those historically part of China--territories that did not seek independence but rather were colonized by various foreign powers during the long decline of the old imperial regime in the 19th Century.

Hong Kong, often regarded as an outpost of Western democracy in Asia, was seized by Britain in a war undertaken to protect English dope smugglers in 1842. The First Opium War, William Gladstone said at the time, would cover England with "permanent disgrace." For moral and legal reasons, not to mention military ones, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had no choice but to agree to return the territory to China in 1997. The belated attempt to add a quasi-Democratic facade to Hong Kong in the waning days of colonial rule is thick with British hypocrisy.

Tibet, usually portrayed as a victim of communist aggression, is in fact the victim of old Chinese imperial ambitions and modern nationalist claims. Incorporated into the Qing empire in 1720, it has been regarded as part of the Chinese nation-state by modern Chinese leaders of all political persuasions. The Kuomintang (Nationalist) government in Taipei still includes Tibet on its official maps of China--and adds Mongolia as well.

Taiwan itself became part of the Chinese empire in the 17th Century. Settled by immigrants from Fujian, it was administered as a prefecture of that province until it was forcibly ceded to Japan as a result of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Taiwan was returned to China at the end of World War II. It has retained a separate existence only because it became the refuge for the remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's army, defeated in the civil war with the communists--and only because the island came under the protection of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in 1950.

A moral and perhaps historical case can be made for an independent Taiwan, but it cannot be made by Lee--as head of the Kuomintang, he must support a one-China policy. In any event, Taiwanese independence is not militarily viable. U.S. experts estimate that U.S. military superiority over China in Asia will not last more than another decade. The de facto U.S. military protectorate over Taiwan could be withdrawn well before the decade is up.

"Peaceful unification" of one sort or another is thus the only rational option for Taiwan. One can only hope it will be accompanied by processes of democratic evolution on the mainland. That, of course, will be determined by internal social and political factors over which foreign powers have little influence. But democratization will not take place in a hostile international environment. This current state of Sino-U.S. relations should not foreshadow the future.

When Clinton meets with Jiang in New York this week, these various territorial issues--especially Taiwan--will be high on the agenda. Hopefully Clinton will approach these problems with some appreciation of the complex histories involved and will eschew the politically expedient but dangerous Sinophobic passions of the moment.

For more than a quarter of this century, U.S. relations with China were poisoned by narrow political biases, with unfortunate results for both countries. It took an ex-member of the notorious China Lobby, Richard M. Nixon, to remove the domestic barriers. Now that the China Lobby has been reincarnated in the Republican Congress and elsewhere, it must be hoped that Clinton has the vision and will to resist domestic political pressures and avoid another, perhaps greater, tragedy in what has become a most complex and perilous relationship with an increasingly powerful China.*

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