In international relations ignorance is not bliss, it's trouble. China baffles the United States, but apparently not half as much as the other way around. Frustration results, leading to demonization on both sides.
In a most unusual way, American scholar Michael Pillsbury, has set about analyzing what makes the Chinese leadership tick. The result appears in a study, "China Debates the Future Security Environment," for the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington.
The secrecy of Beijing's operations is hard, if not impossible to crack. What Dr. Pillsbury and his colleagues have done is to select more than 600 excerpts from papers published by 200 Chinese experts between 1994 and 1999. They include military officers and civilian analysts in Army and other government research institutes. They reflect, as they probably help to form, the intellectual climate in which policy is made.
It is an odd, even bizarre, picture the Chinese have of the US.
They revile the US as ruthlessly using its superpower strength to do whatever it wants, grabbing natural resources as, for instance, the oil of Central Asia - despoiling Russia and denying China access to this energy pool. It seeks to weaken China and is ready, together with India, to detach Tibet and Xinjiang, where it would try to set up no-fly zones as it has in Iraq.
Nor is Washington any more considerate of its allies, in the view of these Chinese experts. For them, the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo reveal the American struggle with the EU to dominate Europe and to redivide the former Soviet sphere of influence. American strategy is marked by diabolical cunning: such as tricking Saddam Hussein into invading Kuwait so that the US could dismantle Iraq's growing power. Its phony "star wars" scheme drove the Soviet Union to bankruptcy. Now they see America's theater missile-defense plan as a design to drag China into a similarly disastrous arms race.
One of Washington's most sinister devices, in the Chinese view, is its profession of "peaceful evolution," designed to undermine China through friendliness, exchange programs, and such.
However, they see American power declining. In fact, they suggest, it barely won the Gulf War. One Chinese scholar wrote, the US even seems to be "ceding skyscraper supremacy to the East" (referring undoubtedly to the world's tallest buildings in Kuala Lumpur).
The Chinese consensus is that in 20 or 30 years a new multipolar world will see a balance of equals: the US, China, Japan, Russia, and Europe. China will then play a chess game of statecraft with coalitions and alliances in pursuit of its goals.
Meanwhile, these Chinese scholars see a turbulent transition period of local wars in which China will be forced to defend its borders - especially if Taiwan declared its independence and the US, Japan, and others intervened. This calls for resource allocation now, they conclude.
There are three schools of Chinese strategic thought. One, a minority view, urges development of radical new weapons to leapfrog US superiority. A second group, including most high military commanders, wants preparation for local war with improved training, weapons, and equipment and complains about not getting the necessary money and technical support. The third, which probably gets the greater part of China's defense investment, endorses Mao Zedong's concept of People's War. It prefers to maintain the world's largest standing army and a national mobilization for wartime defense industry - the status quo.
Overall, the thrust of China's strategic thinking is defensive. But it is hard to see where this leads in concrete terms. The authors of the quite remarkable NDU study report that some of the Chinese experts interviewed thought part of the material was drivel, but declined to put their dissent in writing.
What emerges is a picture of confusion, short-term thinking, and a decision process befuddled by dogma. This may not be totally unfamiliar in Washington, but it leaves China inscrutable as ever.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society