China as our new arch-enemy

September 02, 1997|By Ronald Steel

THE ''EVIL EMPIRE'' has not, it seems, disappeared after all. It has merely moved east and taken on a different hue. The new villain is China, and the new peril is an old one, the yellow one.

Following the welcome, but inconvenient, demise of the Soviet Union, policy wonks turned to Japan as the next great peril. The then-mighty yen and some flashy purchases of overpriced U.S. real estate fueled visions of a Japanese takeover. Would the Rockettes wear kimonos now that Radio City Music Hall was owned by Sony?

But the Big Scare was swept away by the Big Crash in Japan's real-estate market in the early '90s. Books on the inevitable war with Japan were put through the shredder and are now, with different authors but a similar message, emerging with China as the new archenemy.

Republicans claim that the Chinese government has tried to influence U.S. policy by illegally funneling money to the Democrats. In a fund-raising letter, the National Republican Senatorial Committee charged that the White House has been sold for ''illegal foreign cash'' to a ''Communist regime.''

The accusation brought in tens of thousands of checks from the party faithful, irate that foreigners might try to lobby American politicians. Of course, lobbyists' money is the mother's milk of Congress, and it is a favored tool of friendly governments, too. What the Chinese, following the inspiring example of Taiwan and Japan, seek through lobbying is to head off protectionism and preserve their $40-billion-a-year trade surplus with the United States.

No such charges of a foreign government trying to buy an American election have been proved. But even if any government tried to do so, heaven forbid, it would be following a path laid out by the United States itself.

For the past 50 years, Washington, usually through the CIA, has installed, subverted and toppled foreign governments; secretly subsidized political parties and fomented coups; bribed politicians; and spent billions influencing public opinion. It has even plotted, sometimes successfully, to murder foreign officials, such as Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo. The CIA helped overthrow governments it considered too leftist, such as those in Iran, Guatemala and Chile; subsidized right-wing political groups even in democratic allied states like Italy; bought elections for friendly politicians in the Philippines, Lebanon and Nepal; and took secret donations from American corporations to carry out its operations.

No more mock shock

The tradition continues, if less blatantly. An obliging Congress provides $30 million annually to the National Endowment for Democracy to do openly what the CIA did secretly: subsidize political parties, labor unions, political dissidents and the media in dozens of countries -- including China. Given this record, let us please have an end to expressions of mock horror and shock that any country might stoop so low as to seek influence over our politics with filthy lucre.

What is it exactly that the Chinese are doing that the alarm-sounders find so ominous? Their goal, according to the authors of a new book, ''The Coming Conflict with China,'' is ''to ensure that no country in the region . . . will act without taking China's interests into prime consideration.''

While this does not seem like such a startling ambition (it is what the United States insists upon in this hemisphere, and indeed almost everywhere else), it is disturbing to those who believe that the United Sates must indefinitely retain dominance in East Asia. Every attempt to exert Chinese influence is perceived as a threat to America's own current hegemony. The U.S. objective in Asia, these authors tell us, ''must be to prevent China's size, power and ambition from making it a regional hegemon.''

But it is not at all clear that this is the goal of China's current leaders; nor, if so, that it is even a feasible goal, considering how other major powers in the region, such as India, Japan, Indonesia and Russia, feel about it; nor that the American people will indefinitely support Washington's conviction that the United States must remain the hegemon of Asia, just as it is of every other part of the world. In the long run, neither China nor Japan will accept the claim that America has a right to be the dominant power in their region.

Ultimately, the balance of power in Asia will have to be worked out among Asians. The United States is a Pacific power, not a mainland Asia power. It is as unnatural for Washington to demand that it has the right to be Asia's hegemon as it would be for Beijing or Tokyo to demand the right to be the hegemon in the Americas. We will have to get over the assumption that being the ''sole surviving superpower'' gives us the right to decide what everyone else's interests should be. The world doesn't work that way, and we are in for major trouble if we refuse to recognize that.

Ronald Steel is a contributing editor to The New Republic, in which this article first appeared in longer form.

Pub Date: 9/02/97

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