China: Getting Chillier

For a while there, I didn’t think it was all that big a deal when Dubya told the press that the United States has a definite commitment to the defense of Taiwan against military hostility from the mainland Chinese regime. After all, such a commitment was very close to being U.S. policy for a long time during the Cold War and maybe it wouldn’t hurt that much to make it explicit. Sometimes there can be value in clarity and clear positions known in advance.

Having talked to a few more people with a certain expertise in the matter, however, I now view Mr. Bush’s desire for clarity as a mistake not necessarily a huge, irretrievable mistake that will lead us inevitably to war, but a mistake nonetheless.

Mr. Bush’s comment take the United States just a step or two closer to outright hostility between the United States and China, and there is no good reason that the relationship has to be hostile though it may inevitably be somewhat mutually wary for a long time to come.


The prospect of military confrontation or active hostility is still a long way off, and there are underlying reasons for the Chinese and American governments to avoid pushing matters too close to hostility. But it does seem clear that relations between the two countries are notably chillier than they were a month or so ago. The best course for leaders in both countries might be to pull back a bit, avoid loose talk and let things settle a bit.

"The relationship is the most testy and potentially hostile it has been since the Chinese conducted missile tests and the US sent ships into the Taiwan Straits in 1996," Ted Carpenter told us. Carpenter, the director of defense and international relations studies at the libertarian Cato Institute believes that President Bush’s comments have not been helpful.

"Americans are notoriously uncomfortable with ambiguity," Mr. Carpenter said, "but in diplomacy ambiguity has its uses, and it was especially useful in negotiating the Taiwanese-Chinese relationship. Back in 1995 a Chinese diplomat was discussing the possible consequences of military action by the mainland with Joseph Nye, an old diplomatic-academic hand. Mr. Nye said ‘I don’t know what we would do and you don’t either.’

There’s some utility in that kind of uncertainty."


Chalmers Johnson, who taught political science at Berkeley, runs the Japan Policy Research Institute in Cardiff, California, and wrote the incisive critique of American post-cold-war imperialism, Blowback, told me that official Beijing considers the possibility of Taiwanese independence a huge threat to the country’s sovereignty.

"When seven states declared independence in 1860, Mr. Lincoln didn’t offer to negotiate or discuss the matter, he used military power," Johnson said. The situation might not be precisely analogous, but it is worth considering.

Perhaps it was a big mistake for Abraham Lincoln to react so militantly against the threat of southern secession, but given the context it was hardly a big surprise. One could make a case that the best thing for the sclerotic regime in Beijing to do would be to let Taiwan go and forget those ancient but quaint beliefs in the rightful hugeness of the Chinese regime. But at this point in history an overt threat of Taiwanese independence is likely to provoke a military response from the mainland. The Taiwanese know that. The Americans seem oblivious to the possibility, perhaps imbued with that imperial arrogance that assumes a threat from the mighty United States will bring these recalcitrants into line.


"If the Chinese call the bluff," Ted Carpenter suggested to me, "the United States would face a dreadful choice. Either it would back down or it would fulfill the commitment to defend Taiwan. Neither choice is especially attractive. China is not Iraq or Syria. A conflict with China would be a serious matter indeed.

The ironic thing is that most Chinese and a goodly portion of the ruling claque have no desire for war with the United States. They watched as the communist system in Russia imploded. The leadership at least since the early 1980s has sought to spur economic growth, much of it along fairly entrepreneurial lines. China is more open to foreign investment than any Asian country, and most of the investment is from the United States.


"China is coming our way becoming more commercial and capitalist but there’s a powerful military faction that thrives on hostility," Chalmers Johnson said. "Mr. Bush’s comments serve mainly to bolster the influence of this group."

The commercial ties between the United States and China are significant and growing, and commercial relationships generally work against political and military hostilities. But commercial ties are no guarantee. "In 1914 Germany and Great Britain were one another’s largest trading partners," Johnson continued, "but they went to war. Political tensions can override business ties."


Chalmers Johnson believes that in most of Asia Mr. Bush’s posturing in the wake of the spy plane incident, combined with the comment about Taiwan, amounts to baiting China in a way that is something very close to outright warmongering. Few Americans seem to see things this way, but the case is worth considering.

Chalmers Johnson, who worked with the CIA back in the cold war days, says the EP3E flights were not necessary or particularly important form a strategic intelligence perspective. "The kind of surveillance we need to do on China keeping track of major trends, large-scale troop movements, economic developments with implications for the face of the country can easily be done with satellites," he said.

"The kind of information gathered by the flights close to the Chinese coast is more tactical in nature, and almost the kind of information you would want to get during war or outright hostility. What activities detected on what radar frequencies trigger what kind of scrambling of planes or other defensive responses? You would want that if active hostilities were underway or imminent. When they’re not, the information has little direct utility, and collecting it is extremely provocative to China," Mr. Johnson said.


Chalmers Johnson says one under-examined consequence of the end of the Soviet Union has been the extent to which it has led to a virtual end of prudence in US foreign policy. We see troubles in Latin America and send troops. We see China respond to our provocation and move to eliminate some of the ambiguities that have made outright hostilities less likely.

But that’s part of the arrogance of empire, in my view. The Sole Superpower is an adolescent empire, full of muscle and self-confidence but not very wise in the ways of the world.

There are reasons to keep a sometimes-wary eye on China, but no reason to believe hostility is inevitable or even as some influential Americans unquestionably do to welcome the idea of China as a rival with which we might have to fight. Leaders in both countries should pull back, stay quiet and think about the long run.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).