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

October 22, 1995|Maurice J. Meisner | 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

MADISON, WIS. — 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.

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