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CIAO DATE: 03/02
May 2000 - Special Annual Issue
The Sino-U.S. relationship, among all the key Asia-Pacific bilateral match-ups, has experienced the greatest swings in recent years, from the highs after the Clinton-Jiang summits to the lowest low immediately after the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, with many upward and (mostly) downward cycles in between. It is also the bilateral relationship which, if not properly managed, could most likely plunge the region into a new cold, and perhaps even actual, war.
U.S.-China relations are at a crossroads today. Debates are underway in both nations regarding the nature and extent of the future relationship. If either side concludes that the other inevitably represents its enemy, this could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the other extreme, those who dream of building a constructive strategic partnership between the two sides need to address some of the fundamental differences between each nation's future vision and long-term objectives for Asia.
Believing that better communication and understanding are essential to building a more cooperative relationship, the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu and the American Studies Center at Fudan University of Shanghai have instituted a series of strategic dialogues among security specialists from both states. The second dialogue in this series took place in Honolulu in April 2000, co-sponsored with the Honolulu-based Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (see appendix A for the annotated agenda and participant list). This special annual issue of Comparative Connections provides a summary of this meeting, prepared by Bonnie S. Glaser, who covers Sino-U.S. relations quarterly for Comparative Connections.
This introductory section represents my personal observations and conclusions. The more comprehensive report that follows by Ms. Glaser provides greater detail as to the nature of the discussion and includes additional observations and conclusions. Both represent our own impressions and opinions; they do not constitute consensus documents. These thoughts are offered simply to help promote meaningful dialogue on Sino-U.S. relations through a better definition of the challenges and opportunities both sides face.
Major Power Relationships: Alliance or Partnership?
The conference began with a review of relations among the four major powers in the region - the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia. Of the six bilateral linkages involving these four countries (U.S.-China, U.S.-Japan, U.S.-Russia, China-Japan, China-Russia, and Russia-Japan), two figure most prominently in today's geopolitical landscape.
The U.S.-Japan alliance relationship, from an American perspective, provides the foundation upon which American security strategy in the Asia-Pacific is built. However, some Chinese specialists view the effort to revitalize the alliance, and especially the 1997 revision of U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines, as specifically aimed against China. Meanwhile, Sino-Russian efforts to use their strategic partnership to promote a more multipolar world have been interpreted by some Americans as a direct challenge to U.S. influence in Asia and globally. From Beijing's perspective, strategic partnerships rather than military alliances provide a model for future security relationships in the post-Cold War era.
Each sees its own key bilateral relationship as promoting regional stability. But, are the security alliance and strategic partnership approaches compatible? I would argue that they are, but only if the U.S.-China relationship can be managed successfully and if all sides can avoid the "zero-sum" mentality that often has accompanied regional bilateral relationships in the past.
Few in the U.S. feel seriously threatened by the Sino-Russian strategic partnership and improved U.S.-Russia and Russo-Japanese relations could further diminish this concern. Each side's willingness to support the other in areas that remain bones of contention with the West -- Chechnya and Taiwan being the most obvious cases in point -- have helped to bring China and Russia closer together, as have mutual concerns over U.S. unilateralism, NATO expansion, theater and national missile defense (TMD/NMD), and a host of other issues. However, both understand the importance to their own economic health and well-being of good relations with Washington and Tokyo and are unlikely to push their strategic partnership too far.
China's concerns about the U.S.-Japan alliance, meanwhile, have at their root apprehension over the Guideline's possible application in the event of cross-Strait conflict over Taiwan. While China views alliances and forward basing as leftover vestiges of the Cold War, many Chinese security specialists acknowledge that, at least in the near term, the U.S.-Japan alliance, if not aimed at China, generally contributes to regional stability (as does the U.S.-ROK alliance today). However, China's preferred future multipolar world envisions the U.S. and Japan as loosely separated poles rather than a tightly connected single structure. What Beijing fails to recognize fully is that its own future deeds, not its complaints, will have the greatest influence over how close the U.S.-Japan link is or needs to be. A truly benign China cannot be threatened by a truly defensive alliance.
It also appears clear that, under current circumstances, nothing short of assurances by Tokyo and Washington that neither would interfere in a cross-Strait conflict is likely to seriously diminish Beijing's criticisms about the revitalized U.S.-Japan alliance, regardless of how transparent the revised Defense Guidelines process is or becomes. It is equally clear that such an assurance would be politically impossible - and strategically irresponsible - for either Washington or Tokyo to give.
Managing Differing Views over Taiwan
The only thing less likely to be accepted than Chinese demands for "non-interference" assurances from the U.S. is Washington's demand for a "no use of force" pledge from Beijing vis-a-vis Taiwan. Two points seem clear to anyone willing to listen: Washington does not want to do anything that might appear to encourage or embolden Taiwan to dramatically alter the current status quo, and Beijing desires and prefers a peaceful solution (albeit on its terms). Nonetheless, each would do well to accept that the other intends to keep its strategic options open.
As Americans and Chinese sit down to discuss cross-Strait issues, it is also important to recognize that their search for common ground is secondary to the need for common ground between the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The election of Chen Shui-bian as Taiwan's first president from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) adds to the challenge but also presents an opportunity for fresh thinking. Chen has made it clear that he is not going to cross the independence line. But, his flexibility is limited and he faces daunting domestic challenges in building a government long dominated by a single party, the Kuomintang. Beijing must be prepared to recognize and respond positively to Chen's overtures, rather than just demand the impossible.
President Jiang Zemin's flexibility in dealing with Taiwan is likewise restricted, both by his own hard-line pronouncements and by elements within the leadership -- especially but not exclusively within the People's Liberation Army (PLA) -- whose belief that reunification is attainable only by military force could, if not checked, also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There appears no substitute for genuine cross-Strait dialogue, which itself appears possible only if both sides are willing to go back to their 1992 understanding to agree to disagree over what "one-China" means. Attempts to put a deadline either on reunification or on cross-Strait negotiations are likely to backfire.
Finally, China must recognize and Taiwan must be reassured that the U.S. will not back any Chinese formula that is unacceptable to the people on Taiwan -- nor can any "solution" worked out between Washington and Beijing succeed absent Taiwan's consent.
Future Visions for the Korean Peninsula
If Taiwan represents the area of most immediate challenge, the Korean Peninsula provides the greatest opportunity for near-term Sino-U.S. cooperation, given overlapping near-term objectives: peace and stability on the nuclear weapons-free Peninsula, avoiding an implosion or explosion of the DPRK, supporting ROK President Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy," and promoting North-South dialogue.
Over the long term, however, U.S. and Chinese visions for a future Korean Peninsula diverge. U.S. officials argue that future security is best served by a continued U.S.-Korea security relationship even after reunification or reconciliation, as does President Kim. Some (myself included) even speak of a close U.S.-Korea-Japan trilateral security relationship (a "virtual alliance") in the future [see PacNet 47-99]. China wants to see a unified Korea that simultaneously maintains close relations with all the major powers - a goal also shared by President Kim and by the U.S. - but disagrees that maintaining a U.S. security alliance is the best way of achieving this goal. While Chinese participants at our workshop argued that it was premature to be envisioning post-reunification alignments, it is essential to recognize that this is an area where long-term visions are not in sync.
The January 2000 visit to Washington of PLA Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai has opened the door for a resumption of high-level military-to-military contacts and cooperation suspended since the U.S. accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999. But how much cooperation is realistically attainable -- especially given China's lingering suspicions on the one hand and U.S. Congressional restrictions on the other -- and what types of cooperative programs do each side really seek?
Pragmatically speaking, the most that can be hoped for is serious dialogue on issues of contention, with both sides speaking to, rather than talking past, one another. Military equipment and technology transfers are not in the cards. An effort should be made to start developing confidence building measures, such as exchange visits, exercise observers, and prior notification of military activities. To avoid becoming confidence destroying mechanisms, a lack of reciprocity or the impression that one side is gaining more access or information than the other, must be prevented.
Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
Serious differences of opinion exist between Beijing and Washington on various arms control and non-proliferation issues. China is reluctant to engage in broad strategic arms talks as it continues to expand its own nuclear and missile arsenals, but is nonetheless concerned about U.S. efforts to pursue theater missile defense (especially if it involves Taiwan) and national missile defense. China also sees U.S. arms sales as a legitimate topic for debate during arms control discussions, while this topic is not likely to be found on the U.S. agenda when talks are proposed.
Meanwhile, the U.S. commitment to arms control and non-proliferation has been called into question, as the Clinton administration seeks to amend the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Senate rejects the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China also sees recent U.S. overtures to India as undercutting Sino-U.S. strategic cooperation against the spread of nuclear weapons. In return, the U.S. worries about suspected Chinese arms sales and developmental assistance to North Korea, Pakistan, and others.
It is difficult to be optimistic about the future prospects for Sino-U.S. cooperation in the arms control and non-proliferation area, even though both sides share a common concern about the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Arms control can only work when both sides approach it as a "win-win" proposition; this is becoming increasingly more difficult. China's accusations about the U.S. using arms control to seek unilateral advantage are not without convincing examples. Meanwhile, Beijing's reluctance to acknowledge that its own (and North Korea's) offensive missile programs are destabilizing developments which help stimulate and justify missile defense activities prohibits reasoned debate.
One could argue that the U.S. desire for a limited defense is reasonable and that, within a constrained framework, this would not threaten China's interests. Unfortunately, the only thing less likely than China entering into a dialogue which accepts missile defense in principle but aims at restricting its limits would be Washington's willingness to pursue such a debate with Beijing if it were offered. The TMD/NMD debates have become so politicized in both countries that serious dialogue, especially at the official level, seems unlikely, despite the very thoughtful, candid, and generally constructive discussions that have occurred during the Pacific Forum-Fudan workshop series.
Building Toward a Strategic Partnership?
Officials in both countries still profess a common desire to "build toward a constructive strategic partnership," but is this a realistic goal? While neither side wants to be the first to drop the phrase, few would argue that meaningful progress toward this goal is doubtful, absent some significant breakthrough on the issue of Taiwan. Prospects are high that the next U.S. administration, regardless of which party wins, will likely abandon or at least significantly downplay the use of this term. However, the long-standing American policy of engagement with China will continue, absent some truly provocative action on Beijing's part.
Even if the "Taiwan problem" somehow goes away, a long-term cooperative relationship is by no means assured. Another fundamental question yet to be resolved: how can the U.S. and PRC balance Chinese concerns about sovereignty and non-interference in a nation's internal affairs on one hand with U.S. and broader Western concerns over basic human rights and humanitarian crises that transcend national boundaries on the other? Until such time as the U.S. and China (and the other major powers) can find some common ground between these conflicting principles, a strategic partnership remains unachievable.
Several things are required if Sino-U.S. relations are to be improved and a new Cold War avoided. First is a genuine belief on both sides that improved relations are possible and desirable. Second is a mutual commitment, along with the political courage, to pursue that objective. Third are realistic expectations regarding the nature and extent of the relationship. One does not have to search hard to find voices in both countries who share neither the belief nor the commitment.
A complete breakdown in relations -- i.e., a Sino-American Cold War -- is possible but certainly not desirable or in the interests of either side or the broader international community. Conflict is neither inevitable nor unavoidable! But a true strategic partnership also seems unlikely, given significantly differing worldviews and long-term objectives. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for in the near term is "apprehensive engagement" - cooperation in areas where objectives clearly overlap and a commitment to talk about and manage the many differences and lingering suspicions that continue to challenge the relationship.
This will require serious strategic dialogue, not only between the U.S. and China, but among the four major powers and with North and South Korea as well. This should be accomplished at both the governmental and non-governmental (track two) levels, with the latter also providing a venue for the voice of the Taiwan people to be heard. Also needed is a resumption of direct dialogue between China and Taiwan since deteriorating cross-Strait relations inevitably have a negative impact on the prospects for improved relations between Washington and Beijing.