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A Spate of Storms Test U.S.-China Relations

May 16, 1999|Robert A. Manning | Robert A. Manning, a former State Department advisor for Asia policy, is a senior fellow and director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

WASHINGTON — Amid the fallout over NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade came more revelations of Chinese spying, illegal campaign contributions and thefts of U.S. technology and nuclear secrets. In Beijing, students protested and vandalized U.S. property. In Washington, politicians seethed and planned congressional investigations of Chinese agents and their activities. Where will it all lead?

After the painstaking diplomacy of two U.S.-China summits and a visit by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in April, neither the United States nor China seem sure whether they are partners or rivals. The visceral nature of the emotions on both sides reveal not only the two nations' underlying anxieties but also the deeply discordant perceptions each has of the other's intentions. China fears that the U.S. goal is to stifle its emergence as a major power, while the United States fears a huge, authoritarian state challenging its interests and values around the globe.

Does this mean, as some now worry, that the two are destined to be adversaries? That is certainly a possible outcome. Whether the downward spiral in current U.S.-China relations can be halted depends, in good measure, on how each side assesses its predicament, how each tallies costs and benefits of continued acrimony and recrimination, and the degree to which policy remains captive of domestic politics in both Beijing and Washington.

For starters, the United States should acknowledge that spying is an enduring feature of statecraft. Almost unnoticed in the current flap over Chinese snooping were disclosures that India and Russia also were mucking about in U.S. national laboratories. While evidence is still fragmentary, it appears that China has been able to obtain the technical know-how to: increase the accuracy of its missiles; leapfrog an entire generation in nuclear technology to miniaturize nuclear warheads and deploy several bombs on a missile; and acquire knowledge of the most advanced submarine-tracking radar and laser-weapons technology. Ironically, if, as feared, China obtained "legacy codes," which allow simulation of nuclear tests, that success may have influenced Beijing's decision to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996.

China's military has been modernizing its conventional and nuclear forces for most of this decade. Whatever technology it has gained has yet to show up as substantial new capabilities. China's nuclear arsenal remains modest. It still chiefly relies on 1970s Russian technology for its 21st-century air force. It has little ability to project force or sustain military operations much beyond its periphery. The fruits of its technological thefts will likely show up gradually over the next two decades.

Yet, the spate of disclosures about Chinese extracurricular activities are as much about the foibles of the U.S. political system as about China. It is the U.S. campaign-finance system that let Chinese military officials funnel money through Johnny Chung. It is lax security at U.S. national labs, poorly coordinated counterintelligence and the Justice Department's interference with FBI investigations that allowed spying to blossom. Similarly, it was the administration's decision to shift licensing of satellite launches from the State Department to the Commerce Department, lax monitoring of U.S. satellite security and greedy or sloppy U.S. aerospace firms that aided China's missile know-how.

If one thinks the myriad China scandals deepen U.S. doubts about Beijing's intentions and the possibilities of our relationship, it is difficult to overstate the psychological impact of the embassy bombing on Chinese views of the United States.

Even before NATO bombs began falling on Belgrade, China was deeply troubled by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's military intervention in the Balkans. The precedent of NATO attacking a sovereign country without U.N. Security Council authority raised fears that Tibet could be next. Moreover, NATO's "partnership for peace" military program includes all the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, with which the U.S. Central Command has been jointly exercising. These states border Xinjiang, a Muslim province in western China. Suddenly, NATO directly bumps up against China.

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