Forget Japan, worry about China

March 15, 1997|By Daniel Berger

IT WAS ONLY YESTERDAY that Americans feared Japan Inc., the invincible superpower that would dominate the world for reasons of invidious commercial practice.

There was an industry of pointing to alarm. Its high point was Michael Crichton's novel, ''Rising Sun,'' about racist Japanese taking over everything, which came out in 1992 and was made into a movie the next year.

The Japan scare was based on projecting that country's growth of the past 20 years through the next 20. In fact, ''Rising Sun'' had ceased to be true by the time it was published. Japan is reeling in the sixth year of economic decline that is seen there as structural if not terminal.

Jobs are moving offshore. The corporation is no longer a lifetime welfare state. The political-economic assumptions on which prosperity rested are no more.

Which does not mean an end to the ''yellow peril'' syndrome bringing out in Americans the emotions of past wars and the racism of past immigration policy.

A new book, ''The Coming Conflict with China,'' by Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro (Knopf, $23), two journalists with long experience in that country, explains who the real enemy is.

Japan-bashing is out. China-bashing is the new fashion.

The thesis is simple. China is the world's most populous country and also the most explosively growing economy in history. It is a nuclear power that bullies its neighbors and protects its industries.

China is trying to upset the balance of power in Asia. Its leaders consider the United States the major obstacle in their way and China's natural enemy.

The authors don't really predict war with China, only that it will be the United States' principal adversary for years to come. They do consider war a possibility and write an imaginative scenario.

Why make China stronger?

Indeed, with the Soviet threat now gone, some pro-Chinese policies make less sense, especially military cooperation, which continues.

Chinese warships called at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, last week, on a first good will venture into blue water. Do Americans really want China, with nuclear capability, to project force anywhere?

China is buying state-of-the art fighter planes, submarines and missile-armed destroyers from a crumbling Russia. Do Americans really want to help? Do Russians?

In the 19th century, American businessmen dazzled by ''400 million customers,'' forced a U.S. policy of the ''Open Door.'' This meant the U.S. insisted that all China was one country in which U.S. goods could compete with European and Japanese trade.

Later, Americans with business interests or missionary experience formed the ''China Lobby,'' to champion Nationalist China on Taiwan as the only China and isolate the Communist regime on the mainland as an evil that would pass.

Today's China lobby consists of Fortune 500 companies with dreams of 1 billion customers. Their prophet, as the Bernstein-Munro book makes clear, is Henry Kissinger, pioneer of Sino-U.S. relations, business consultant for anyone wanting access to Beijing, spokesman for soothing relations with Beijing. That, of course, only feeds the conspiracy theories.

So does the prospect that spymasters in Beijing may have funneled money to American political candidates, laundered through people doing business in China. Never mind that the China policies the overseas Chinese espouse are the same ones that Mr. Kissinger's all-American clients do.

The weaker Russia gets, the stronger China becomes, the more the scare talk will be with us. The Bernstein-Munro book is only the first of what will be many. The anti-Japanese rhetoric is still useful, only now applied to the larger power.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/15/97

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