Is China The New Evil Empire?


By Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro

Knopf 245pp $23

You could say that China's propaganda machine had it coming. At Communist Party conferences, in military publications, and through People's Daily editorials, the Chinese have, over the past five years, built up the U.S. as a rising hegemonic power out to "contain" China's economic and political emergence. The theme has hit popular Chinese culture in the form of such hot-selling books as Behind the Demonization of China, which claims the U.S. media are conspiring with Washington to weaken China.

Now, there's a return salvo from the West: The Coming Conflict with China. Drawing from statements by Chinese leaders and media, Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, former China correspondents for Time and Toronto's Globe and Mail, respectively, argue that China, not paranoid Americans, is putting the two powers on course for a military collision. China's goal, say the authors, is "to become the paramount power in Asia and to supplant the United States in that role."

Buy that, and the rest of the argument for regarding China as a threat--an idea roundly dismissed by many--falls into place. China's growing foreign reserves, ballooning trade surplus with the U.S., drive to pry technology from multinationals, and acquisition of modern weapons are part of its scheme to become the region's unchallenged superpower, Bernstein and Munro believe. But what of its top leaders' repeated assurances that China "will never seek hegemony"? That's just an age-old Chinese tactic for disarming a foe. Why has Beijing so enthusiastically feted U.S. CEOs and awarded them megadeals? It's a ploy to get Corporate America to neutralize U.S. opposition to China's political repression and at the same time secure advanced technology.

There is much in this book that will trouble people who have spent time on the mainland. Written in a sometimes jingoistic tone, it often comes across as an anti-China screed. It does little to place the military buildup and industrial strategies in the context of such problems as vast and growing unemployment, uneven distribution of wealth, and the dilapidated state of industry. And sinologists already are picking apart the authors' calculation that China's 1996 military spending was up to 10 times the official $8.7 billion.

Even if Beijing's elderly hardliners do harbor aggressive intentions, moreover, one must wonder whether they can realize their aims. Beijing bureaucrats may indeed dream of becoming global powers in autos, electronics, aircraft, and telecom equipment. But step inside any Chinese factory not run by a multinational, and it's hard to envision China becoming home to the next Toyota or Fujitsu anytime soon. And there's no reason to assume that, by the time China's military and industry reach world standards, the leaders then in power will share the same goals as today's gerontocracy.

Still, it would be wrong to dismiss The Coming Conflict as mere China-bashing. Munro and Bernstein didn't set out to write a survey of modern China but to deliver a wake-up call to Pollyanna-ish policymakers and executives. Nor is the book's central point farfetched: that China's "goal is to dominate Asia, not by invading neighboring nations" but by being so powerful that nothing happens in East Asia "without at least China's tacit consent." Unless the U.S. intervenes, China does not need state-of-the-art weaponry to intimidate its neighbors. By manipulating access to its market and mounting enough of a threat to vital sea lanes, airspace, and ports, it can bring Taiwan, Japan, and much of Southeast Asia to heel.

When it comes to U.S. policy prescriptions, moreover, The Coming Conflict's bark is worse than its bite. The authors argue neither for economic sanctions to punish human-rights abuses nor for curtailing constructive engagement. The sharpest departure from orthodoxy is a call for managed trade to whittle down the $39.5 billion trade deficit, which they argue is helping finance China's military buildup. Otherwise, they want an escalation of present strategies: pressing human-rights complaints in international forums and bolstering regional-security arrangements to preserve the balance of power. That means continuing to help Taiwan defend itself, maintaining U.S. bases wherever possible, and urging Japan and Asian allies to assume a greater defense burden.


But the book leaves the follow-up question unanswered: How much longer can--or should--the U.S. remain the sole guarantor of Asia's balance of power? No Asian country seems willing to get involved in its neighbors' problems if the opponent is China. Indeed, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia all have a much greater stake in Asian stability than does the U.S. And they have the wherewithal to protect that stake if they band together. Yet they are either too fearful of irritating China to establish any regional security alliance or they simply don't believe China is a threat. Why shouldn't the U.S. tell Asia's Tiger economies: Share the costs and political risk of keeping the region stable, or don't expect American help if China tries to grab your oil fields.

If, as the book suggests, China can maneuver these countries into subservience without firing a shot, it will be Asia's 21st century power broker whether the U.S. likes it or not. If the rest of Asia has decided it can live with that, then the real challenge for the U.S. is to learn to coexist.

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