NEW YORK — American victory in Iraq is having an unexpected and unintended impact in a surprising place: China. This will have deep implications for the US. Since the war started, China has shown important changes in its approach to the world, most recently at the talks between Beijing, Pyongyang, and Washington.
China has not recoiled from American power, but is stepping up to engage it. This entails some risk taking, and China deserves credit for it; the world should be grateful. But what does this mean for US stature and influence in Asia? Will it be reduced as a result?
China's new assertiveness will play out over three areas: the Korean Peninsula, China-Taiwan relations, and China's military modernization. These changes have implications for the US role and long-term interests in the region.
China's high-profile sponsorship of the Beijing talks between the US and North Korea is the first sign of its accelerated bid for regional leadership. Previously, China remained on the sidelines, urging restraint, but taking a public pose of disinterest. China aspired to leadership, but never took it overtly.
That changed when the US refused to engage directly with the North Koreans and insisted that any talks be multilateral. At America's invitation, China astutely saw its opening and took it. One wonders if, in effect, China stole a march on the US by playing good cop to the American bad cop. Would US leadership in the region be better served by dealing directly with North Korea, while keeping friends and allies closely informed and consulted, rather than ceding the role to China? Tactically the US was smart to engage China in bringing the North Koreans to the table. Strategically it may not have been so wise.
Meanwhile, China is calculating how successful use of preemption by the US in Iraq can be applied to Taiwan. In recent months, China has demonstrated considerable forbearance as Taiwan's fall elections approach. However, any action that moves Taiwan further from China or closer to de jure independence - for example increasing US arms sales or including Taiwan in a regional missile defense system - will trigger a strong reaction from Beijing.
Having set the precedent of preemption where vital national interests are at stake, the US can expect China to follow suit. China has always framed the Taiwan question as one of vital national interest and territorial integrity. For better or worse, the US has put preemption on the table as a tool of statecraft. China will use it if pushed.
To counter this, the US should work to keep tensions across the Taiwan Strait below the boiling point. The long-term trend between China and Taiwan shows growing economic engagement. The US should encourage this as a deeply stabilizing force.
At the same time, China has intimated it would reconsider its military buildup across the strait if the US reconsidered its military sales to Taiwan. This deserves serious attention from the Bush administration. An arms race is in no one's interest and only works to convince hard-liners in Beijing that the US desires an independent Taiwan.
Perhaps most important, Beijing's shock and awe over the victory in Iraq is causing a top-to-bottom review of Chinese military strategy, weapons, and force configuration, including plans for a nuclear buildup. The 1991 Gulf War led China to launch a major weapons-development program and reconfiguration of its forces. The US should expect the same now and should prepare for intensified Chinese study of our tactics and weapons systems. China will not sit idly by and watch unchecked American military power grow without trying to acquire some of the same capabilities. Expect a robust development of nuclear capability by China as their planners calculate the most efficient way to counter US military dominance.
The US should respond with increased vigilance and deeper engagement with Chinese military planners and thinkers to better understand China's threat perception and to counter it. It's time for a ministerial-level meeting between Chinese and American departments of defense.
The US must think carefully about the future role it wants to play in Asia. Right now, China has seized the initiative and is taking the lead in shaping events there. This is certainly in China's interest, but it may not be in America's interests.
• Rob Radtke is vice president of policy and business programs for the Asia Society, a nonprofit educational organization promoting understanding of the Asia-Pacific region. This article reflects his personal opinions, not those of the Asia Society.