China Crisis Withers the Strategic Landscape

THE fate of China's pro-democracy movement has understandably captured the attention of the outside world. Endorsing the aspirations of Chinese reformers, President Bush has offered an initial American policy response marked by wisdom and restraint. Most notably, he has argued that the fate of Asia's largest nation must finally rest in the hands of those leaders who can best come to terms with the demands of their people.

The administration has thus far been less forthcoming, however, in specifying how China's political crisis will affect both the strategic interests of the United States and international security. It is not too soon for American policy planners to weigh how a possibly more hostile Chinese leadership could exacerbate regional tensions and complicate efforts to create a more stable international order.

The most immediate concern is who now controls China's nuclear forces and what safeguards are in place to ensure that they remain instruments of deterrence instead of lethal bargaining chips used by one or more domestic political factions.

There is little consensus in the West on what China's nuclear doctrine really is or on how the Strategic Rocket Forces, the major nuclear element of the People's Liberation Army, implement nuclear command and control. The ultimate authority for managing China's nuclear deterrence posture rests with the Central Military Commission under the chairmanship of Deng Xiaoping and the day-to-day management of its vice-chairman, Yang Shangkun. The unsettling reality is, however, that the prospect of a unified strategic command-and-control system remains clouded.

This situation raises serious questions about whose finger is on China's nuclear trigger. It also points to the dangers of what is an increasingly fine line between political authority and anarchy in Beijing: Are the military authorities who orchestrated the massacre in Tiananmen Square just as prone to use nuclear weapons in any pending civil war in which their power could be threatened by entire armies instead of mere students?

The ambiguity of nuclear-deterrence strategy and management in China should prompt immediate demands from outside powers for assurance that China has its nuclear forces under control. Once some form of political order is restored, moreover, China should be strongly encouraged to join international efforts to implement stronger arms control agreements and confidence-building measures.

China's political crisis also has lasting implications for security problems in the Asia-Pacific region. From the time President Nixon began the process of Sino-American normalization, successive US leaders have regarded China as a strategic counterweight to Soviet military power in the Far East. By cutting off military relations with the Chinese, however, President Bush has strongly signaled that Washington will now rely more on its traditional regional security partners, including Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

Yet almost every US ally in this region is undergoing a domestic political crisis that could ultimately impede defense ties with Washington. While the US was certainly correct to oppose those who stifle democratic forces in China, the geopolitical penalties of severing all military relations with China may be excessive.

US pragmatism also applies to China's continuing role in Indochina. China, along with the USSR, has been an integral player in efforts by the non-communist Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to forge a political settlement in Cambodia. China remains the most important key to any such settlement. It is the leading supporter of the Khmer Rouge, the most powerful and certainly least acceptable resistance faction contending for power in Cambodia. Without China's backing for some type of international guarantee for a peaceful transition of power, hopes for a more stable regional order in Southeast Asia would appear to be dim.

An unstable China also reduces prospects for sustaining a regional environment conducive to peaceful political change and continued economic development. For all the concern US officials and legislators have expressed about growing trade imbalances with the Asia-Pacific's newly industrialized countries, these commercial success stories remain politically vulnerable.

Hong Kong's very economic viability may be at stake in what now happens in Beijing, some eight years before that British crown colony's scheduled reversion to Chinese control. A more repressive Chinese regime will only drive what is left of Hong Kong's skilled labor force and management talent to safer havens. It could also reverse what has until now been a gradual easing of tensions with Taiwan's Nationalist government, itself under rising pressure to become more democratic.

Even Japan's uncertain domestic political climate and its concerns about the continued US willingness or ability to patrol the Asia-Pacific's sea lanes can be related to unfolding events in China. If Tokyo concludes that a Chinese government preoccupied with domestic strife is unable to deter what Japan still sees as a critical Soviet regional military threat, while Washington simultaneously moves to reduce its worldwide presence, it could move more rapidly toward extensive rearmament, thereby actualizing a nightmare long disturbing to both the Chinese and Southeast Asian leaderships.

President Bush recently fashioned an enlightened yet pragmatic approach to European security. The same blend of circumspection and foresight should now be applied in structuring US policies toward the Asia-Pacific at a time when the region's most culturally dominant and militarily powerful nation may be entering a phase of prolonged isolation and weakness. If Washington fails to clearly identify its strategic interests in that region, it cannot expect to influence the forces of change in Asia to the degree it may desire.

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