Beware close US military ties with China

In recent months there has been a palpable shift in the United States' security perceptions, tending to legitimize the concept of closer military cooperation with the People's Republic of China. The fundamental motivation behind that shift is Washington's desire to shore up US global alliances in order to redress any imbalance in the US-USSR balance of power. But the inclusion of China on a large scale in America's mutual security network would be counterproductive.

Presumably the poor record of Japanese rearmament efforts and South Korea's uncertain prospects caused Washington to reassess the totality of its Asian regional strength. Despite the recent upsurge of defense consciousness in Japan and the relative calm prevailing in Seoul, the prospect of adding some form of Chinese armed power to augment existing bilateral US-Japan and US-South Korea arrangements for East Asian security sparked new interest in Washington.

Before the US goes further along that path the pluses and minuses of closer US-PRC security cooperation ought to be examined in light of American objectives. On the surface it seems quite obvious that a strong China acting in strategic concert with the US would help redress any US-USSR imbalance. Moscow almost certainly would perceive it that way. However, what about the impact of closer US-PRC security ties on other Asian friends and allies? The picture is far murkier.

Tokyo's uncertainties over US resolve and perceptions of Soviet expansionism in the Far East finally seem to be arousing the Japanese from their comfortable postwar lethargy. However, if the US goes too far in shoring up its Asian security network via Chinese cooperation, it risks simultaneously undercutting its best hope for fostering Japanese security consciousness. The Japanese would be quite happy to let the burden of regional security shift to a Washington-Peking axis with Tokyo playing a corollary security role and emphasizing its economic interests.

Any moves by Washington enmeshing the US more deeply in Asian security are welcome in Seoul. Though the US intention might be to strengthen regional self-reliance and gradually be relieved of some onerous burdens with China's help, South Koreans know the Japanese well enough to be confident the American bilateral security overtures toward China would likely prove self-defeating regionally. Strengthened US-PRC ties, weakened Japanese incentives, and North Korea's probable anxiety about the spillover from the US-PRC relationship would be quite compatible with Seoul's interests, because they would enhance South Korea's already formidable leverage over the US. Contrary to long-range American interests, the US commitment to South Korea would be further entrenched.

The direct bilateral impacts of any truly significant US-PRC security cooperation clearly would be counterproductive to overall US objectives in Northeast Asia: regional stability and regional self-reliance.

In addition to those minuses, Peking's military liabilities surely match, and perhaps surpass, its assets as a quasi-ally. Is it wise to inch closer to the probable loser in any Sino- Soviet armed confrontation? Clearly it is not. Furthermore, can the US rely on Chinese leadership to remain stable? That is highly problematical. American interests in Asia -- security, political and economic -- would be far safer in the hands of contemporary Japan than of China.

Against the background of these minuses, what shouldm the nation's objectives be in its security relations with China? To start, we should recognize and use Soviet fears of a US- PRC military alliance. Though any such bilateral alliance carries today unacceptable risks for America's broader interests in East Asia, the possibility of such ties remains useful for Washington. While proceeding with ongoing efforts to motivate allies to strengthen their contribution to mutual security within existing Asian alliances, the US should not emasculate those efforts by implementing prematurely its "China (security) card."

Instead of pursuing that shortsighted option, the US should encourage the Chinese to strengthen their own defenses, provide the Chinese with technical and material assistance, encourage economic and political moderates in China, and do all it can to foster common security interests among all its East Asian friends. Given China's present liabilities as an ally for the US, the threat of a future alliance with Peking would be far more effective with respect to the Soviet Union than anything concrete done now. Perhaps -- if Japan ever gets its security act together, South Korea's leverage over the US is weakened, and China's interests are more firmly integrated with those of the West -- perhaps then a concrete security arrangement between the US and China will become desirable. But until that day comes, Americans should be very wary of actually resorting to the "China card" militarily. That "card" is far more useful as an ace in the hole than on the table.

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