Marred Visions of US, China

Each country misperceives the other, and miscalculation could result

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RELATIONSHIPS between nations, like relations between individuals, have rhythms, periods of delicacy requiring the wisdom of both parties. We are at such a juncture in Sino-American relations.

The two nations probably will avoid a trade war as the cliff-hanging intellectual property talks move toward their Feb. 26 sanctions deadline. But there is a much greater long-term danger to ties: accumulating dissatisfactions, played out against a backdrop of misperceptions and miscalculations by weakened governments on both sides.

The would-be successors to China's aging supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, are unsure of their footing with their own people and in the international community. In Washington, we have an administration unsure of itself in many foreign-policy areas and confronting an energized Republican-controlled Congress. In both Washington and Beijing, domestic politics and exaggerated perceptions are driving policy in dangerous directions. In both capitals voices are calling for fundamental reevaluations of the relationship.

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`Be tough while they're weak'

This is no time for miscalculation in Sino-American relations. And yet, there is real danger of just that.

In Washington, there is increasing talk of the ``China threat,'' even though China's social and political cohesion is widely believed to be shaky. The thinking spawned by this view is, ``be tough while China is weak.'' In Beijing, there is increasing talk of America's ``hegemonism,'' domineering policies, and desire to see China weak and fragmented. At the same time, the United States is portrayed as a ``power in decline,'' paralyzed by political gridlock, weak political leadership, aimlessness, and social breakdown. This breeds a ``be tough with the Americans and they'll back down'' view.

This mixture of mutual hubris, contempt, and suspicion is combustible. Such views have caused colossal errors in US-China relations before: the ``accidental'' Sino-American conflict in Korea and arguably the Vietnam quagmire. We are nowhere close to these kinds of cataclysms, but the situation is worrisome.

`Fig-leaf' foreign policy?

It is disturbing to read in official and unofficial Chinese sources how an increasingly wide range of informed Chinese view America. Washington is seen as so constrained domestically by political gridlock and scarce budgetary resources that it cannot act effectively abroad. US foreign policy is simply a reflection of economic interest, with moral concerns a mere fig leaf for ``commercial diplomacy.'' Social and ethnic cohesion in America is seen as diminishing and citizen confidence in Washington as declining.

The conclusion? America is in a weak position and will back down in the face of a determined Chinese leadership.

On another extreme, this line of reasoning leads a few in the Chinese leadership to conclude that ``the West remains our chief enemy'' and that America is pursuing a ``new containment strategy.''

Some of the central elements of widely shared views of China among American opinion-leaders are scarcely less flattering or balanced. Among these: China's leadership lacks legitimacy and wins popular compliance simply through coercion; unemployment, inflation, and the succession to Deng could well produce social and/or political breakdown; to survive, China's leaders must have access to American markets, capital, and technology, and this dependence provides Washington with enormous leverage.

Moreover, Beijing is seen as a borderline rogue actor on the international stage, selling weapons to the world's pariahs. This accumulation of images leads some in Washington to ``press for stronger American support for Taiwan.''

Elements in both sets of perceptions have merit, but the pictures are too black and white. Each set of views omits shared interests, ignores the power of nationalism in the other nation, and leads to extreme policy conclusions.

Challenge assumptions

A far better set of policy assumptions for both capitals would be as follows:

* First, it is likely that both America and China will gain in strength over the next decades and that each must regard the other as a permanent feature of the global political and economic landscape.

* Second, how each state will behave toward the other in the future is not foreordained. Instead, future behavior will be shaped by the environment they create now. If Washington and Beijing each assume the other is a threat, they will take actions that create the belligerent foe they fear.

* Third, neither nation will be effective in dealing with the other by relying principally on threats, with the expectation that the other will always retreat in the last extremity.

* Fourth, forums and structures knitting together China, the United States, and others in the Asia-Pacific region need to be strengthened in order to foster mutual understanding, transparency, and interdependency.

Unless Washington and Beijing are careful, each may overestimate its own capabilities, underestimate those of the other, and act on a misguided assumption that each is necessarily a long-term threat to the other. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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