The rise of China

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Before the end of George W. Bush's presidency, whether in four years or eight, China may well replace Russia as the focus of United States foreign policy concern.

Chinese strength, in every sense, is growing. Russian strength is declining. Although not yet a superpower, China is a legitimate regional power. Russia is no longer either.

The problem for the Bush administration, and for the American people generally, will be how to handle this Chinese emergence. We do not know much about the new president's thoughts on China, but we do know about the elements that will give him painful choices.

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The most important of these choices concerns Taiwan and the antiballistic missile, designed to shoot down incoming missiles. Taiwan has been a sensitive irritant ever since the Chinese nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek established themselves there at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The nationalists have assiduously and successfully cultivated their numerous and vocal friends in the United States, especially in Congress. This bloc has been responsible for creating what amounts to a de facto military alliance with Taiwan. Partly under this protection and partly with astute economic policies, the Taiwanese (some transplants from the mainland, some indigenous to the island) have developed a thriving economy and a high standard of living, as well as their own considerable defense industry.

The Chinese in Beijing have consistently made plain their determination to fight before acquiescing in Taiwanese independence. Ever since President Nixon's trip to China in 1972, all concerned have agreed on a common policy of one China embracing the mainland and the island. The two could scarcely be more different. The agreement is to pretend that they are one.

This is not entirely satisfactory to anybody, but is tolerable to everybody - the mark of a good diplomatic or political compromise. Any action that upsets this delicate balance is certain also to upset the Chinese. This puts the United States in the awkward position of having a foot in each camp.

The antiballistic missile only complicates things for the Bush administration. The United States views this as a defensive weapon. The Chinese view it as a weapon that will make offense possible. From this perspective, the ABM will remove whatever fear the Taiwanese have of Chinese retaliation against a Taiwanese attack on the mainland. Theoretically, it would encourage the more hot-blooded Taiwanese (and their friends in the United States Congress) who would like to mount such an attack.

Now comes new Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to push the antimissile project forward. Mr. Rumsfeld was chairman of a congressionally created commission which, shortly before the inauguration, urged the creation of several new agencies and offices dealing with space warfare. Rumsfeld would create a National Space Council in the White House and a Defense Space Council in the Pentagon. He would add a presidential special assistant for space on the staff of the National Security Council, a new Air Force undersecretary of space, and a congressional space caucus.

These recommendations have significance far beyond the public attention they have received. They would create bureaucratic interest groups to push the ABM and even more far-fetched ideas of space warfare in the White House, Pentagon, and Congress itself. This is a well-tested technique for embedding a controversial idea in the bureaucracy by creating constituencies for it in the public and the government.

To mention only two prominent examples, it has been used in the foreign-aid program and in human rights policy. With respect to foreign aid, one of several things Congress did along this line was to require greater use of university contracts. This instantly created a potent lobby of state universities and land-grant colleges. In human rights, Congress created a State Department office of assistant secretary of human rights. This created a permanent pro-human- rights voice in a skeptical department.

Doing the same thing for the ABM will not ensure that military space programs go forward, but it will likely ensure that they will not go backward. It is almost unheard of for Congress to abolish something it has created.

We must weigh our relations with China against (1) pushing forward with the militarization of space and (2) confronting the strength of the Taiwan lobby in Congress. A possibly hopeful sign is that as the increasing importance of China becomes more apparent, more members of Congress will stand up to the lobby.

Pat Holt writes on foreign affairs for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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