U.S. policy on China challenged

SUN JOURNAL

Security: A new Pentagon book suggests that the authoritarian regime deems America a threat and engagement efforts are failing.

March 05, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Expose Chinese to the United States and they will become more like us. That has been one of the cornerstones of American policy for changing China from an authoritarian regime to a more pluralistic and stable one.

A new book funded by the Pentagon, though, suggests that strategy is failing to make an impact where it might do the most good: among Chinese security analysts. Instead of seeing America as a potential model for a freer, more vibrant society, many view the United States as a morally corrupt, declining power and a major threat to China and global peace.

U.S. "gunboat diplomacy will inevitably lead to endless wars and disorder all over the world," an article in China's Liberation Army Daily said in May at the height of the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. "The target today may be a small nation, but it could be a big country tomorrow!"

The quote is one of more than 600 from Chinese military and civilian sources noted in "China Debates the Future Security Environment" by Michael Pillsbury, visiting senior fellow at the National Defense University in Washington.

Pillsbury's book provides a rare glimpse of how the Communist Party's security analysts see the United States and the world. It also raises questions about the effectiveness of the Clinton administration's policy of engaging China rather than trying to contain its rise as a world power.

"He's opened up a whole Pandora's box of material there that normally doesn't reach the U.S. government," says David Shambaugh, an expert on the Chinese military and director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. "The engagement school is suffering from a severe case of cognitive dissonance."

The book, published in January, comes at a propitious time.

Last month, China once again rekindled concerns about military conflict in the Taiwan Strait by expanding its threat to attack Taiwan if the island tries to indefinitely postpone reunification. China views Taiwan as a rebellious province and has vowed to take it back by force if necessary. The United States has pledged -- though somewhat ambiguously -- to defend Taiwan if it is attacked.

This month, Taiwanese will choose a president. Among the leading candidates is Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which favors independence. If Chen wins, strained relations between Taiwan and China could fray further.

Pillsbury relies on writings published between 1994 and 1999 from open sources including scholarly journals, books and newspapers. Although there is disagreement among analysts, the overall picture that emerges is an unpleasant one for the United States.

Many Chinese analysts insist that America is a declining power. They predict that the world is headed inexorably toward a new multipolar order controlled by China, the United States, Germany, Russia and Japan.

Following an orthodox line laid down by the Communist Party in 1986, the analysts maintain that the United States will overextend itself militarily and lose its alliances as Japan and Europe try to develop better relations with China. Some predict that China will surpass America as a world power between 2020 and 2030.

The perceptions are at odds with the conventional wisdom that the United States is the most powerful nation and may be increasing its lead.

The reasons for the contrast include the prohibition on open debate within China's authoritarian system and the fact that the majority of analysts have never visited the United States. Because of a long tradition of secrecy, top analysts cannot meet foreigners. "It shows what happens when you are up against 5,000 years of cultural tradition," says Pillsbury, a fluent Chinese speaker and longtime student of the country.

The lack of firsthand knowledge worries U.S. military officials, who fear Chinese leaders could make fatal mistakes by misjudging American resolve and capabilities.

As a Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, Pillsbury pushed hard to develop a military relationship between China and the United States to defeat the Soviet Union. Viewed by some as a maverick, he helped implement a plan whereby China funneled American-made Stinger missiles to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets.

In his book, which refers to more than 200 sources, Pillsbury presents unsettling conclusions drawn by Chinese analysts. They include the theory that the United States barely won the Persian Gulf war and that Iraq could have defeated America with a better strategy. Some analysts also claim that North Korea could beat the United States in a war on the Korean Peninsula.

Pillsbury's research also suggests that the China's Peoples' Liberation Army is studying ways to defeat the United States in a regional war by attacking communications' satellites, unleashing computer viruses and striking first.

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