Even in its own right, the recent US clash with China over the fate of the Navy’s EP-3E electronic spy plane and its twenty-four crew members can be viewed as a significant event. Like similar occurrences during the cold war era–the shooting down of Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane in 1960 and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983–it will leave a legacy of suspicion. But the crisis is also important because it is feeding into a critical debate in Washington over the direction of US policy toward China. At the center of this debate is the unresolved issue of whether to treat China as an enemy to be battled or a market to be exploited. And while those outside the Republican right have little voice in this debate, all Americans will be affected by its outcome.
That there are divisions among President Bush’s senior advisers is hardly surprising. Much has been made, for instance, of the differences in outlook between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But the divide over China runs much deeper. More than a difference of outlook, it reflects longstanding schisms within the Republican Party over the ultimate objectives of US foreign policy. This divide was already evident during the Clinton Administration, when many Republicans in Congress voted with the President’s party to approve most favored nation (MFN) trading status for China, while others attacked Clinton for his conspicuous overtures to Beijing. But now, with the Republicans firmly in the White House, the divide has become a purely internal–and bitter–affair.
The sharp edges of this debate were not readily apparent in the EP-3E affair, as the White House strove to present a united front. But they are plainly evident in the next most important issues facing the President’s team: the decision on whether to supply Taiwan with advanced weapons systems, including the Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyer, and that over the scope of the proposed national missile defense (NMD) system.
On these key issues, the two wings of the party are strongly divided, with one side favoring the Aegis warship sale and the adoption of an explicitly anti-Chinese NMD system, and the other side opposing these options on the grounds that they would trigger an irrevocable breach in US-China relations. At this point, it is still too early to predict how these issues will be resolved–but there is no doubt that the current crisis will inflame the rhetoric and passions of key figures on both sides.
To better understand the issues embedded in this debate and to appreciate its long-range implications for American security, it is necessary to look more deeply into the divisions among top Republican policy-makers.
The current divide has deep roots within the Republican Party. In essence, it is a contest that pits those whose primary commitment is to the promotion of free trade and extensive overseas investment against those whose principal aim is the containment–and, ultimately, the liquidation–of China’s Communist system.
During the early cold war period, from 1949 (when Mao Zedong and his followers gained control of the country) until the end of the Vietnam War, the militantly anti-Communist faction prevailed in Washington. This was reflected in lavish military aid to the Kuomintang regime in Taiwan, US support for covert Taiwanese raids on the mainland and US military intervention in Korea and Vietnam. After Vietnam, however, this camp lost its hold on power when a more pragmatic (or opportunistic) faction, led by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, brought China into America’s anti-Soviet alliance and opened China’s immense market to US products.
Although China’s perceived value as a strategic ally in the US-Soviet rivalry evaporated with the end of the cold war, its attraction as a market for American goods only grew stronger as the Chinese economy expanded. Hence, President Clinton was able to assemble a coalition of Democratic centrists and Republican free traders to grant Beijing permanent MFN status. Clinton also espoused a strategy of “engagement” with China, claiming that an increase in US economic and political ties with that country would expand the space for political liberalization and give the Chinese leadership a stake in the stability of the existing, US-dominated international system.