‘Congagement’ With China?

‘Congagement’ With China?

GOP hawks want containment; others favor more trade and more toughness.


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.

Most Republicans went along with Clinton in his efforts to open the Chinese market to an ever-widening range of US goods and services, but they never bought into the basic premise of engagement: that China’s Communist leaders will mellow out as a result of growing exposure to Western values and become good, upstanding global citizens. Instead, they believe that the Chinese regime is an obstacle to progress and thus must be eliminated–whether through the pressure of relentless capitalist competition or by direct military action. This difference in outlook was aptly summarized by Senator Fred Thompson in a February talk at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The Clintonians, he noted, believe that “with the advent of the Internet and modern telecommunications, along with free trade, China will become more free and open.” Most Republicans, on the other hand, believe that “our efforts to reach out to China have borne little fruit. Instead, Chinese bellicosity and disregard for US interests have actually increased, particularly with regard to Taiwan.”

But while the Republican leadership is united in its rejection of the Clintonian approach, it is divided on what to put in its place. Although there are many gradations of outlook, most senior policy-makers fall into one or the other of two rival camps. At the most extreme wing of the party is a group that calls for the containment of China combined with US military support for an independent Taiwan. The other camp, drawn more from the center of the party, calls for a scaled-back version of engagement combined with a toughened US military stance in Asia. To describe this view, its proponents sometimes use the term “congagement,” an expression coined by Zalmay Khalilzad of the RAND Corporation to embrace both containment and engagement.

The advocates of “congagement,” or one of its many variants, insist that increased trade with China remains America’s best vehicle for bringing about fundamental change in China. “The power of free enterprise to limit the scope of government control in China should not be jeopardized,” says Stephen Yates of the Heritage Foundation in a characteristic expression of this view.

These policy-makers acknowledge, however, that the very prospect of a reduction in government control could trigger a militaristic backlash by Chinese leaders, leading to increased pressure on Taiwan and a possible clash with the United States. “Increased trade and engagement may help open up China in the long run,” Thompson observed in February. “But while hoping for the best, we must prepare for less desirable scenarios.” This means, he argued, that we should provide Taiwan with sufficient weaponry to offset China’s own arms acquisitions, and we should strengthen our alliances with such friendly powers as Japan and South Korea. Thompson also calls for the deployment of a “robust, multitiered” NMD system–although not one aimed explicitly at China. Similar views are expressed by China experts at the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Proponents of this approach recognize that some of the proposals they favor–stepped-up arms sales to Taiwan, a robust NMD and stronger ties with Japan–will provoke dismay and anger from Chinese leaders. But they believe that an outright breach in China-US relations can be averted if Washington avoids crossing certain “red lines” set down by China. Most significantly, this would mean eschewing any military sales to Taiwan that would link Taiwanese defenses to those of the United States (e.g., advanced radars like the Aegis system that could be integrated with US missile defenses) or that might otherwise give Taipei the impression that it could safely declare its independence from the mainland.

Clearly, implementation of the congagement approach will be fraught with recurring crisis and tension. But, say its advocates, it can be sustainable in the long run if US leaders provide Chinese leaders with sufficient incentives (in the form of economic ties) to overcome their repugnance for US military moves. Those who adhere to this view “believe that we can push hard on China,” explains Bates Gill of the Brookings Institution. “They think that the Chinese will give in, because they need us–for trade, technology and so forth.”

This general outlook is favored by many of the corporate interests in the Republican Party and by those with a strong ideological commitment to free trade, such as Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner. It is also backed by Henry Kissinger and other prominent veterans of the Nixon Administration. Among the current leadership, it is favored by Secretary of State Powell and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. It is being attacked, however, by the vociferous and well-placed supporters of containment. This group–composed of like-minded figures in the military, the conservative think tanks and some of the Republican delegation in Congress–believe that no amount of trade or engagement can prevent a China-US clash. The only safe course, they argue, is to build up American defenses in Asia and integrate Taiwan into the US alliance system.

Central to this position is the view that China’s Communist leadership is inured to the use of violence, and thus will employ force whenever it sees a benefit–or a necessity–for doing so. “China remains a police state controlled by a self-perpetuating Communist dictatorship,” says Arthur Waldron, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania with ties to AEI. It is a regime “for which lawless coercion remains very much a fundamental tool of politics–not only domestically, but in foreign policy as well.” Hence, “China almost by definition poses a potential threat to her neighbors and to the US.”

This being the case, it is said, the United States should abandon engagement in all its forms and surround China with an impregnable ring of US and allied military bases. Drawing on the arguments once used to justify containment of the Soviet Union, these analysts maintain that such a strategy will keep the peace by discouraging China from engaging in adventuristic behavior (such as an invasion of Taiwan); even better, it would undermine the coercive foundation of the current regime and thus bring about its eventual demise. Our ultimate goal, says Waldron, should be a “regime change” in China.

If, indeed, this is viewed as our ultimate goal, then the last thing that Washington should do is to promote increased trade with China, thereby assisting in the growth of its economy. The bigger the Chinese economy, it is claimed, the greater will be Beijing’s capacity to buy or develop advanced military systems. Those who adhere to this view, says Stephen Yates, believe that by trading with China “we’re feeding the beast that’s going to rear back and bite us.” Similarly, those who hold these views contend that the United States should view Taiwan as a valuable ally in its efforts to contain China and should provide the Taiwanese with any weapons they require to assume this role. Finally, they suggest that the United States should build a national missile defense system with the clear and explicit goal of eliminating the threat (however diminutive) of China’s nuclear retaliatory capability.

To promote these views, the advocates of containment have formed an unofficial lobbying and propaganda group they call the Blue Team (a reference to the friendly side in US military exercises). Among those who are often associated with this group are Richard Fisher, a former aide to Representative Christopher Cox; Mark Lagon and Jim Doran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff (chaired by archconservative Senator Jesse Helms); William Triplett, an aide to Senator Robert Bennett; Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy (a conservative think tank); and Bill Gertz of the Washington Times. They are supported financially by Richard Mellon Scaife, a Pittsburgh billionaire who has given lavishly to right-wing causes.

At present, this group is the minority faction in the Republican policy-making establishment. “The Blue Team does not represent powerful political/economic interests,” says Bates Gill of Brookings. Similarly, Stephen Yates of Heritage estimated their strength as representing about 30 percent of the senior Republican leadership, compared with 70 percent aligned with the “congagement” camp. On the other hand, the Blue Team is said to be better organized than the opposing camp (which they call the “Red Team”) and to enjoy the support of key figures in the Defense Department and the intelligence community.

The critical question, of course, is how this contest will play itself out among the upper reaches of the Bush Administration. On the basis of interviews conducted over a two-week period in Washington, I sense that the congagement camp is, at present, the dominant faction. “US-China links go way back; they’re still the foundation of US policy,” James Lilley of AEI, a former US envoy to Beijing, told me in March. Speaking of Bush’s top advisers, he observed that “basically they agree–the economic factor is paramount.” When all is said and done, “they will not push things to a point that is really provocative to China.”

At the same time, it is apparent that the advocates of containment have made significant inroads into the upper echelons of the Administration. In particular, I was told that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and some of his closest associates, including Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, are very sympathetic to the containment position. This is reflected, for example, in Rumsfeld’s assumed support for an NMD system that would be intended to “capture,” or neutralize, China’s nuclear retaliatory capability. Three years ago, Rumsfeld headed a Congressionally mandated study of the global missile threat, which assessed the Chinese missile force, and he has since argued for the deployment of an elaborate NMD system–that is, one that could defend against a hypothetical Chinese attack [see William D. Hartung and Michelle Ciarrocca, “Star Wars II,” June 19, 2000].

The man Rumsfeld picked to conduct a comprehensive review of US strategy, Andrew Marshall of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, is known to believe that China is destined to clash with the United States as it seeks a more dominant regional position. According to early reports on the current review, Marshall will propose a significant expansion of US military power in Asia–with China clearly in mind.

If Lilley is correct, Rumsfeld and his hawkish collaborators will be constrained by Secretary of State Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice from doing anything that would be “really provocative” to China, like fanning the flames of independence in Taiwan. He may be right. But I fear that the advocates of containment will gain ground on such various fronts as NMD and arms sales to Taiwan, gradually ratcheting up the pressure on Beijing and pushing Chinese leaders to the point where they take such provocative steps of their own as firing missiles off the coast of Taiwan (as they did in 1996). Indeed, their aggressive encounters with US spy planes like the EP-3E, now sitting at a Chinese base on Hainan Island, could be viewed as a foreshadowing of such behavior.

Further actions of this sort would, of course, undermine the position of the pro-trade camp in Washington and bolster the case for high-tech arms sales to Taiwan and other anti-Chinese moves. One thing could then lead to another, as Washington and Beijing both respond to the other’s initiatives with increasingly punitive countermeasures. Before long, we could find ourselves in a renewed nuclear arms race with China and in a dangerously unsettled environment in the Asia-Pacific region.

At this point, it is still too early to determine whether a scenario of this sort is likely to be played out. For one thing, the relative power balance between Powell and Rumsfeld is still in flux. But whichever camp eventually prevails, we are in for a difficult time with respect to China-US relations. If nothing else, we can expect periodic clashes over Taiwan and the systematic buildup of US military forces in Asia. This, in turn, will poison the atmosphere at the UN and other international forums, impeding progress on other critical issues.

One might conclude this discussion by imploring people of good will to speak out on the need for a prudent, nonprovocative policy toward China. The fact is, however, that the debate on this issue is largely confined to members of the Republican inner circle, and so most of us have very little influence on the issue. It is essential, therefore, to raise the China/Taiwan issue in as many ways as possible, calling for a more democratic debate on what is ultimately in the best interests of the United States. By the same token, interested parties in Asia–the people of Japan and Korea, for example–should also be brought into this debate, as they, too, would suffer from the effects of a new arms race in the region. A matter as significant as US-China relations must not be left entirely to a small coterie of right-wing ideologues in Washington.

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