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A Confident China No Longer Wants America's Military Muscle in Asia

August 07, 1995|JIM MANN

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei — Lost amid the ups and downs of daily events in Asia is a fundamental change of extraordinary importance. For the first time in a quarter-century, China says it no longer welcomes an American military presence in Asia.

China's new message seems to be "Go home, America," a reverse of George S. McGovern's "Come home, America" refrain during the Vietnam War. Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen made this abundantly clear during the conference of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations that just ended here.

It is time for the United States to stop regarding itself as the "savior of the East," Qian told reporters. "We do not recognize the United States as a power which claims to maintain the peace and stability of Asia."

Qian was talking only a few days before the incident in which two American military attaches from Hong Kong were detained and then expelled from China on allegations of spying. His remarks were the most explicit, high-level acknowledgment yet of what Chinese defense and military officials have been privately telling Americans with increasing frequency.

Over the past two years, several American defense experts have been surprised to be informed, during meetings with their Chinese counterparts, that there is no need for the United States to keep its forces in Asia. The American troop strength in Asia is now 100,000, including 47,000 in Japan and about 37,000 in South Korea.

Americans who are aware of today's messy relations between the United States and China may not find the go-home theme surprising. But for China, it is a startling turnabout.

From the days of President Richard Nixon's opening of relations with Beijing until the end of the Cold War, China welcomed the U.S. presence in Asia as a counterweight to the Soviet Union's military power. And in the years immediately after the Cold War ended, China let it be known that it wanted the Americans to remain in Asia to help maintain the status quo.

China's logic was clear: Without the U.S. presence, Japan would be forced to increase military spending sharply. China did not want to have to compete with Japan for power and influence in Asia.

Over the past few years, the United States has done whatever it could to reinforce this logic. America has portrayed itself as the keeper of the peace in the Pacific.

Both the George Bush Administration and the Clinton Administration repeatedly suggested that America played the role of a balancer, preventing any single country (translate: China or Japan) from dominating the world's fastest-growing region.

This has become official American policy. "The stability brought about by the U.S. military presence provides a sound foundation for economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region, benefiting Asians and Americans alike," the Pentagon declared in February in its most recent description of its strategy.

The Pentagon's description of its Asia strategy said that the United States "has the capability, credibility and even-handedness to play the 'honest broker' among nervous neighbors, historic enemies and potential antagonists."

America's portrayal of itself as the "great balancer from across the seas" is not unique to Asia. It has long been part of America's self-image in Europe too. American officials have for years depicted the continuing U.S. military presence in Europe as necessary to keep any other big nation (translate: Germany or Russia) from achieving so much power that it could overwhelm its neighbors.

So when China tells the United States that it no longer views U.S. troops as a force for stability in Asia, that is not only a change in Chinese strategy. It is also a direct challenge to America's self-image in the world and its justification for a permanent military presence overseas.

What lies behind China's new message?

In part, China no longer sees the United States as a neutral, benevolent force in Asia. Instead, it has been accusing the United States of pursuing a policy of "containment"--seeking to limit and restrain China's power in Asia.

Chinese officials look at a series of U.S. actions as indications of this containment strategy: America's normalization of relations with Vietnam, its increasing warmth toward India, its sale of F-16 warplanes and other equipment to Taiwan, its search for a huge offshore "depot" to store military equipment in Southeast Asia, and its increasing involvement in other places near China, from Hong Kong to Mongolia.

Over the past few months, American officials have repeatedly denied that such a containment strategy exists. "We have no desire to contain or isolate China," Secretary of State Warren Christopher told the Asian foreign ministers gathered here last week. Again and again, Clinton Administration officials describe American strategy toward China as one of "engagement, not containment."

China doesn't believe the bland reassurances. Some Chinese officials have theorized that the United States is carrying out a strategy of "secret containment."

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