President Carter's special effort to meet with Chairman Hua Guofeng in Tokyo last week underscores the growing US-China-Japan quasi-alliance. After denying for the past two years that it was tilting toward Peking, the administration, with a foreign policy all but on the rocks, is vigorously playing its "China card." But its timing gives ammunition to those who argue that actually China is "playing its America card" and not the other way around.
Vice-Premier Geng Biao's trip to the United States was part of a Chinese diplomatic offensive which also took Premier Hua Guofeng to Tokyo -- the first time a Chinese head of state had visited Japan in hundreds of years. Hua's trip emphasized the unfolding of a new Pacific alliance in the making between the US, China, and Japan, a burgeoning political constellation that sends chills down the spines of Kremlin planners.
On top of that, in mid-may China successfully tested its first ICBM long-range missile, a move that dramatically alters the Sino-Soviet strategic balance giving Peking the capability of nuclear strikes across the Soviet Union. And as if to quell any lingering doubts about its Western leanings, during the same week as the ICBM test, China became a member of the World Bank.
The problem with the China card is that the less it is played the more valuable it is. While it is true that some aspects of US-China bilateral ties go beyond simply trying to gain leverage over moscow, it is hardly coincidence that the upswing in US-China ties occurs as US-Soviet relations are at a particularly low ebb.
This change may be the single most consequential of all the moves taken in the wake of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
US officials stress that we are "friends, not allies," suggesting that, if the Soviets don't start behaving themselves, the US will make the final leap into a full-fledged alliance.
On the occasion of the unprecedented visit by Vice-Premier Geng, Peking's top military official, the Carter administration announced that it will allow Peking to purchase C-130 military transport planes, air defense radar, trucks, transport helicopters, and computer equipment. And, in a rare move, the administration also will permit private US firms to build factories in China to produce American-designed helicopters and computer parts.
It is questionable just how much the China card enhances American security; in fact, the developing quasi-alliance may be a serious destabilizing factor. The main benefit of the US-China partnership, aside from countering Soviet influence in Asia, stems from the fact that Moscow keeps 45 divisions of troops along its Chinese border that might otherwise be deployed in the West.
But the risks are many. Already Western businessmen's fantasies of a billion Chinese consumers awaiting them have been diminished. True US-China trade is up to $2.3 billion for 1979 and expected to top $3 billion this year. But many businessmen now fear the difficulties they have been having in signing contracts with Peking reflect a Chinese aim of seeking to buy just enough of any item to clone copies without paying for a license. Witness the recent disclosure that China has cloned a Boeing 707, dubbed a "708." Will it still benefit the United States in the year 2000 when China begins to develop a modern industrial capacity and emerges as an economic as well as military super-power?
Another big if is the "lesson of Iran." Overnight "de-Maoization" turned Mao's policies on their head and replaced many top officials associated with them; it is equally possible that in the next wild swing of the Chinese political pendulum, a faction more wary of the US might emerge and the military might produced with US aid turned against us.
Moreover, the key to stability in China is rapid modernization of agriculture and consumer goods. By implicitly encouraging the allocation of China's resources to the military, the US may be aiding in mistaken priorities that decrease the national security of both countries.
The big question is how far the US will go in its partnership with Peking. Some analysts worry that already Soviet policymakers fear a fait accompli;m thus Carter may have already overplayed his hand. If Moscow, in its deeply rooted fears of the "China threat," is tempted to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against Chinese missile sites, would Washington come to the aid of Peking and risk World War III?
In short, the China card is no substitute for solving the urgent task of conceiving, in consensus with our allies, an operational definition of coexistence with the Soviet Union that both safeguards Western security interests and accepts the USSR as an equal superpower.