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CHINA: THE GIANT AWAKENS : View From America : U.S. Wrestles With Familiar Questions : Forget day-to-day worries. Put aside brouhahas that make headlines. The real Washington-Beijing policy issues are hardy perennials.

June 15, 1993|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — What are the big questions facing America as it seeks to come to grips with China's growing economic and military power? What are the choices for the long term?

Forget about the day-to-day worries. Put aside the brouhahas that have dominated the headlines and consumed much of the time of policy-makers in Washington over the past few years--such as what to do about China's most-favored-nation trade benefits or about Beijing's continuing export of dangerous missiles and nuclear technology.

Here are the main issues that an increasingly powerful China raises for the United States in the future. Call them the Four Big Questions. Each one is a modern-day version of questions that have been raised again and again in the history of America's relations with China and with the rest of Asia.

Friend or Enemy?

Is China an American ally, an adversary or something else?

"We're at a point where we have some ability to make either possibility come true," says Richard H. Solomon of the RAND Corp., who was assistant secretary of state for Asia in the George Bush Administration.

"The way the policy has been formulated over the past couple of years is driving us inexorably toward confrontation. We tell China, 'You've got to change your ways, because otherwise you're a pariah.' If we continue down this track, it's self-fulfilling."

Throughout much of the 20th Century, the answer to this question could not have been clearer. China was America's ally under the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek. After the 1949 victory of the Communist revolution, Mao Tse-tung's government became, for two decades, a bitter adversary; indeed, for a time, China ranked even above the Soviet Union on Washington's enemies list.

Attitudes changed once again with the Richard Nixon Administration's opening to Beijing, and from 1972 to 1989, China was deemed, if not a formal ally, then at least an unofficial partner of the United States in a form of strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union.

Now, uncertainty reigns. The Soviet Union no longer exists. China is ostensibly the only nation in the world with intercontinental missiles targeted on the United States, since Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin announced last year that the missiles of the former Soviet Union were no longer aimed at American soil. China's growing military power and its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea are viewed by some American strategists as a threat to American interests in Asia.

When President Bush cleared the way for the sale of advanced American F-16 warplanes to Taiwan last year, his action was written off by many as merely an election-year ploy, aimed at winning votes from Texas workers at the General Dynamics plant that manufactures the planes.

But in fact, the sale also reflected the Pentagon's belief that the United States needs to do something to confront and rein in China's growing military power. U.S. defense sources say that over the past two years, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been a growing tendency among some Pentagon officials to treat China as a potential enemy, both in private conversations and in some war-games contingency planning.

Of course, whether a nation is treated as a friend or a foe of the United States is a decision rarely made in isolation. It is almost impossible to predict the future course of U.S. policy toward China without knowing what American relations will be with China's neighbors Japan and Russia. Any serious and protracted dispute between Washington and either Tokyo or Moscow could quickly thaw whatever frost might exist in the ties between Washington and Beijing.

And that brings us to Big Question No. 2:

Japan or China?

Is the United States doomed to choose between China or Japan as a future ally in Asia?

Throughout most of the past century, UC Berkeley professor Robert A. Scalapino has observed, "America has had good relations with one (China or Japan) while it confronted the other."

The aberration was during the 1970s and 1980s, when the United States had reasonably good ties with both Asian powers. But that was during an era when all three nations worried about Soviet military power, and now the common glue of the Soviet threat no longer exists.

Three years ago, when seeking to justify the importance of maintaining close ties with Beijing after the 1989 Tian An Men Square crackdown, both former President Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry A. Kissinger, suggested that China could serve in the future as a counterweight to the growing power of Japan.

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