Big Red Checkbook
On the issue of Taiwan, however, Beijing retains an old-fashioned inflexibility. For Washington, the island is a foreign policy issue; Beijing, on the other hand, considers Taiwan a family problem, one that will eventually be resolved internally by persuasion or, if necessary, by force. Because foreign policy analysts inside the Beltway are essentially risk analysts, those who follow East Asia are drawn to likely flashpoints. Journalists Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro tried to make the case for a "coming conflict with China" in their 1997 book of the same name, pointing to Taiwan as the spark. A decade later, even as Taiwan has moved closer to formal independence, the "global war on terror" has eclipsed the presumed China threat.
Richard Bush and Michael O'Hanlon have tried to update this argument in A War Like No Other. They promise "the truth about China's challenge to America" but have to jump-start their argument by turning back the clock to 1995-96, the tensest moments in recent US-Chinese relations. At that time, the Clinton Administration reversed restrictions on US visits by high-level Taiwanese officials and let President Lee Teng-hui visit his alma mater, Cornell; Beijing retaliated by sending missiles in the direction of Taiwan and conducting large-scale military exercises. Bush and O'Hanlon imagine a repeat scenario in which "in a fog of miscommunication and politics, an enraged China prepares to attack the island" and the United States comes to Taiwan's defense: "No one backs down--each has too much at stake," they write, and then string together a series of maybes that lead to a "terrifying scenario." It reads like the kind of overstatement that foreign policy analysts resort to in order to pitch skeptical editors yet another article or book on China.
A conflict over Taiwan could indeed result from Taiwanese impatience, Chinese nationalism and US pigheadedness. Taiwan continues to make noises about shifting from de facto to de jure sovereign status. Although large majorities of Americans oppose war with China over Taiwan, more than 90 percent of the Chinese people support military action against Taiwan if it splits.
But Bush and O'Hanlon concede that the economies of China and Taiwan have grown inextricably linked, as have the Chinese and American economies. And despite several chapters devoted to an extended war-gaming scenario, they admit that "most hypothetical causes of war" between Washington and Beijing "turn out, upon inspection, to have little or no basis." Even if their premises are sensational, their advice is sensible: Washington should help Beijing and Taipei toward "a more benign, unification-friendly sovereignty" for Taiwan. After all, what would Beijing do with the island after military takeover? Taiwan is no Tibet. It is a powerful capitalist country that has developed a strong taste for democracy. Beijing beware: even a small bone, if swallowed the wrong way, can prove deadly.
Washington should pay less attention to the strength of China, some knowledgeable courtiers are whispering, and more to the great country's weakness. In this telling of the story, China is an elaborate pyramid scam, its prosperity resting on a foundation of sand. Only by continuing to generate unprecedented levels of growth--11 percent in 2006--can China continue to fool its domestic supporters and foreign investors into playing the game. Inside China, troubling stories appear every day. There is rampant corruption. Some grow impossibly rich while many remain impatiently poor. Tens of thousands of protests break out in the cities and the countryside every year. The AIDS and SARS scandals, the harrowing coal mine disasters, the ruthless suppression of dissidents--eloquently described by Chinese activists themselves in the new collection Challenging China, edited by Human Rights in China staffers Sharon Hom and Stacy Mosher--all have the potential of sapping the confidence of the population in the leadership's capacity to govern.
In the most poignant chapter in the collection, "The View Beneath the Bridge," writer Yi Ban describes a group of people who travel to Beijing from all over the country to petition the government to redress wrongs. They end up living under a bridge near a compound of government offices. They scavenge for food. They spend precious money to produce reports on the corruption and legal miscarriages with which they hope to impress the central authorities. And they get nowhere. One day, the police come through like a terrible wind and sweep the petitioners away as if they never existed. These workaday tyrannies, more so perhaps than the jailings of high-profile dissidents, may prove cancerous in the long run.
With all the talk of China's rise, it might seem perverse to cast the country as the sick man of Asia. Yet in China: Fragile Superpower, Susan Shirk argues that "the weak legitimacy of the Communist Party and its leaders' sense of vulnerability could cause China to behave rashly." Shirk, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, gives insightful summaries of China's relations with Taiwan and Japan. But her argument about China's potentially rash conduct, like Bush and O'Hanlon's, is based on some farfetched assumptions. Shirk sees China's nationalism as a double-edged sword, one the government wields against its adversaries and finds pressed against its own neck. In order to maintain their own position, Chinese leaders may launch a wag-the-dog invasion of Taiwan--or Hong Kong or Tibet or Xinjiang.
This is possible, but is it probable? Why would Chinese leaders risk the stability they need to maintain economic growth? Nationalism and the pride that comes with becoming once again a world power will more likely have a centripetal rather than centrifugal effect, bolstering the legitimacy of the Communist Party rather than pushing it to bet the house on a military adventure. China has ultimately borrowed a great deal from the West, and this notion of the nation-state, so alien to the Jiaqing Emperor in 1805, will prove the most influential import. Alongside its twenty-first-century economy and twentieth-century political structure, China has a very nineteenth-century sense of nationhood.