Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit to Beijing next month is aimed in part at resolving mounting conflicts in Sino-US relations. If left unchecked, current tensions could lead to a second cold war, say American and Chinese analysts.
Misperceptions on each side and a chain reaction of increasingly alarming responses culminated earlier this year when two US aircraft carriers engaged in a virtual showdown with the Chinese military off the coast of Taiwan.
A running battle between the two Pacific Rim giants has caused leaders in both Beijing and Washington to rethink the fundamentals of their ties, the analysts say. Mr. Christopher hopes to defuse tensions over US strategic interests in Asia, Washington's ballooning trade deficit with Beijing, and human rights issues during meetings with Chinese leaders in mid-November, says a Western official.
He also plans to set out a tentative schedule for President Jiang Zemin to visit the United States next year, with President Clinton, if
reelected, expected to reciprocate by early 1998.
Worsening disagreements have led some conservatives in Beijing to accuse Washington of plotting to contain China's growing influence and power, while their American counterparts paint China as a dangerous dragon that threatens Asia.
Both sides are fundamentally wrong, says William Overholt, author of "China: The Next Economic Superpower" and the managing director of Asian research at Bankers Trust in Hong Kong. Beijing's war games during Taiwan's first democratic presidential election last spring caused some leaders in Washington to "view China as dangerously aggressive, which was just as inaccurate as China's view that the United States was trying to dismantle it," Mr. Overholt says.
China never intended to attack Taiwan, says the banker, and aimed instead to "send a loud clear message to Washington to stop interfering in China's sovereign affairs." China analysts at US think tanks and universities generally agree that the main conflict between the world's present and potential superpowers centers on the status of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province whose separation from the mainland is a legacy of the cold war.
The US, in establishing diplomatic ties, recognized Beijing as the legitimate government of one China, and in the 1982 Sino-American joint communiqu pledged to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan as Beijing pursued peaceful reunification.
"There is no question that Washington broke the treaty" in 1992, when President Bush agreed to sell Taiwan up to 150 advanced F-16 jet fighters, says Robert Ross, an associate at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research.
The breach was widened in June 1995 with the granting of a US visa to Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui.
American foreign policy analysts say those actions, along with calls in Congress to revoke China's most-favored-nation trade status, to send an ambassador to Tibet, and to safeguard Hong Kong's political autonomy following its return to Chinese rule in mid-1997, have incensed China.
"If you're sitting in Beijing watching these moves, you don't have to reach far to begin to believe that the US is trying to dismantle China," says Overholt. "An equal and opposite paranoia on the part of the US" has brought the world to the "brink of an utterly gratuitous second cold war."
The official China Daily warned on Oct. 24 that if a Sino-American cold war breaks out, the effects would be felt worldwide.
A senior Chinese official who spoke on condition of anonymity says some hard-liners in Beijing believe that a new cold war has already begun. He says more and more party officials are concluding that "following its success in breaking apart the Soviet Union, the US has set its sights on China."
He added that by adopting a confrontational approach, the US is losing any leverage it had to promote peaceful, gradual political change in China.
"When Jiang Zemin became head of the [Communist] Party [in 1989], he initially focused on economic reforms and improving relations with the US," the Chinese official says. Mr. Jiang eased controls somewhat on civil liberties, sought a summit with his American counterpart, and made other moves aimed at improving China's image on the world stage. Yet Washington responded with increasingly strict demands in the areas of political and trade reform, says the official. President Clinton met with Jiang in informal settings, which the Chinese leader considered demeaning to the head of a rising power.
While a warming of Sino-US ties would have bolstered Jiang's position within China and his initial moderate stance, the opposite trend has strengthened the influence of conservatives in the Communist Party and Army. "America's gunboat diplomacy [in the Taiwan Straits] has fueled calls for increased funding for the military and boosted the Army's role in Chinese politics," says the official.
Chinese university students and young professionals said in a series of recent interviews that the stationing of US aircraft carriers so close to the Chinese mainland also transformed what had been an argument between political leaders on opposite sides of the Pacific into widespread popular discontent at the US within China.
"The use of the American military to protect Taiwan has made many intellectuals here believe the government when it says the US wants to hold onto its superpower status by keeping emerging powers like China weak," says a young Chinese university instructor. "While the US may see it as a move to protect democracy in Taiwan, many Chinese view it as a form of American colonialism...."
INCREASINGLY negative popular perceptions in each country could have consequences that stretch into the next century. Conflicts between Washington and Beijing could become far more dangerous and prolonged than the cold war with Moscow because they would involve differences over not only ideology, but basic civilizational values, warned Samuel Huntington in "The Clash of Civilizations," a 1993 article in Foreign Affairs magazine.
Western officials downplay the seriousness of the row, but concede each side has misjudged the actions of the other and made major policy mistakes. One says "China's military maneuvers off Taiwan's coast were not a measured response to Lee Teng-hui's provocation," but adds US government leaders had later concluded moving naval deployments into the Taiwan Straits "may have been heavy-handed."
Another Western official said most reports of China's military buildup and aggressiveness "come from the American political arena and feed into the media."
Both officials say "containment is not official American policy" and added the main goal of Christopher's visit to Beijing will be to broaden engagement. The trip is expected to cap a succession of recent high-level exchanges. US arms-control official John Holum put a positive spin on his talks in Beijing earlier this month, and the administration's senior expert on China, Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, held a series of meetings in mid-October.
CIA director John Deutch secretly traveled to the Chinese capital at the same time to discuss security and arms sales issues. Stepped-up contacts and adherence to previous Sino-American pacts "could avert a new cold war," says Professor Ross. Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian's coming visit to the US should "help put Sino-American relations on a healthier track," said the China Daily.
Analysts generally agree that two key events shook the foundations of Sino-American ties: the use of the Chinese military to crush pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing seven years ago, and the subsequent fall of the world's first communist state. China and the US had formed a strategic partnership to counter Soviet expansionism, and the disintegration of the USSR broke those ties. The Chinese Army's march on Tiananmen Square in 1989 crushed American perceptions of a modernizing, reforming China that seemed to be taking on the trappings of Western culture and thinking, and the images of bicycles flattened under tank tracks throughout the streets of Beijing seem to be frozen in America's collective consciousness.
Yet many American analysts say Beijing is gradually evolving from totalitarian to authoritarian rule, just as Taiwan did decades ago, with a growing number of party cadres abandoning any belief in Marxism, and the sprouts of a civil society taking root in pockets of China. They suggest China is poised at a pivotal point in history, with Beijing likely to turn inward and fan the flames of xenophobic nationalism if faced with external pressures that threaten the party's rule.
The alternative, they say, would involve the US leading the West in integrating Beijing into global structures and networks, which in turn could stimulate greater cultural and political diversity within China.