The Future of US-China Relations

DENG XIAOPING'S decision to suppress the student movement in June 1989 has led to a serious crisis in US-Chinese relations. The popular reaction was horror and outrage at the actions of the regime and sympathy for the students and their cause. The official reaction has shared these sentiments, but has also displayed a realpolitik desire to avoid sacrificing the economic and strategic benefits that the US government perceives in its relationship with China. The inherent tension between moral principles and pragmatic, realpolitik rationales in shaping America's China policy necessitates consideration of the benefits derived by the US from its relations with China and the desirable course of future relations.

It is certain that US strategic, political, and economic interests could be seriously damaged by any policy that attempted to isolate China. Such an approach would only encourage further repression within China, undercut the position of those elements within the Chinese leadership that continue to advocate reform, and potentially radicalize Chinese foreign policy.

But American interests also would not be well served by formulating future China policy on the basis of outdated strategic rationales from the 1970s, by making American-Asian policy subservient to Chinese concerns (as we've done on Cambodia), or by an overvaluation of China's importance to the US.

In reality, China needs the US much more than the US needs China. The economic benefits of the US-Chinese relationship are heavily weighted toward China. Beijing needs American markets, foreign investment, and technology much more than the US needs China as either a market or an investment location.

The security and intelligence benefits that the US obtains from its ties with China are largely independent of US policy. The Chinese pursue limited political and intelligence cooperation with the US because of their own suspicions of the Soviet Union. As long as China believes that the USSR is the greater threat, the US government does not need to offer any special concessions or benefits to sustain the basic relationship.

Basic geostrategic factors preclude close Sino-Soviet relations. The two countries share a 4,600-mile-long border and a common determination to be the dominant power in Asia. Their long-term ambitions limit Soviet and Chinese cooperation to a short-term tactical truce, while they pursue other, more immediate priorities. Sino-American cooperation against the USSR can be preserved by simply preserving US ties with China and avoiding policies which threaten China.

At the same time, the US must recognize that the commonality of interests that exists between the US and China is extremely limited. The USSR is the only security concern the two nations share. China pursues independent policies in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia - many of which directly conflict with US policies and interests.

Furthermore, current trends strongly suggest that the US and China will come more into conflict in the future. The Chinese government - whether reformist or conservative - will probably become more repressive. Conservatives want to suppress the forces of reform. Reformers want to push ahead with more rapid and daring economic reforms. But both groups are willing to use authoritarian power to implement their policies.

Consequently, issues of human rights and other important American moral principles and beliefs will probably create increasing diplomatic tension between China and the US. The behavior of Chinese students and overseas Chinese in the US and elsewhere may also become a major source of tension.

IN addition, China's immediate security concerns vis-`a-vis the Soviet Union are declining due to Gorbachev's policies and China's own reassessment of Soviet power. The Chinese are beginning to believe that they can reassert their own regional ambitions in Asia after an expected superpower withdrawal.

China's increasingly powerful navy and its willingness to use force to pursue its territorial claims in the South China Sea threaten important US interests in Southeast Asia. It could threaten naval traffic through the region and the security of US friends and allies through intimidation, if not outright military attack. China and Vietnam have already engaged in a major naval battle in the Spratly Islands. In the future, Chinese ambitions in this region could lead them into conflict with Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

These trends suggest that the US should continue its policy of banning military sales and technology transfers to China. American military assistance is of negligible value against the Soviet Union, but does increase China's capabilities against the other regional states. American military sales to China increase Chinese capabilities vis-`a-vis American friends and allies, increase the risk of military conflict between China and these states, and potentially strengthen Chinese influence in the region at the expense of American influence.

In the next decade, US policy toward China should be measured and wary. The US should not attempt to isolate China. Economic contacts should be preserved. Intelligence relationships that are beneficial to both countries should be continued. But the US must recognize that in most areas of military and foreign policy, American and Chinese interests are competitive, not complementary.

Above all, the US cannot make its future policies hostage to Chinese concerns. The security advantages that the US derives from Sino-Soviet distrust it will obtain without subordinating its Asian policies to Chinese interests and dictates. The Chinese are determined to follow an independent policy in pursuit of their own national interests. The US should follow their example.

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