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China Policy Needs Dose Of Reality

If the Cox committee’s report on Chinese nuclear espionage proves nothing else, it demonstrates that a policy of wishful thinking toward China is dangerous. The big question is whether the United States and its allies have the courage and maturity to develop a better approach.

Not to over-dramatize, but prospects for global peace and prosperity in the 21st Century hang in the balance. Beijing’s strategic interests are on a collision course with those of its neighbors as well as the Western democracies. Only a change in China’s government would alter this fact. Of course, avoiding a change in government is what Chinese politics is all about.

The Chinese have understood and acted on these realities all along, which is why it was no particular surprise when a bipartisan committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., found that China has engaged in a 20-year penetration of America’s most sensitive secrets. In fact, China’s drive to upgrade its military was one of the Four Modernizations that Deng Xiaoping instituted with wide publicity after he took power in 1978. Deng just forgot to mention that the military modernization would be accomplished with our technology. (For the record, the other modernizations were agriculture, industry and science.)

The United States and China see things in fundamentally different ways, as illustrated by the reaction to the NATO bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade. To Americans it was a regrettable and unfortunate accident that happened in a worthy cause. To Chinese, even those who do not depend on the state-controlled press for information, it was a deliberate attempt to punish a sovereign power for opposing our air campaign against Serbia.

We cannot pretend these differences do not exist. If we try, we risk disaster when more significant confrontations arise in the years to come. Our trade, investment, cultural and family ties to the world’s most populous nation are important, and it certainly makes no sense to cut them. Yet China is not on a path that can reasonably be expected to make it a stable and reliable partner, either in global politics or in business. We need to take a hard look at our differences and decide what we are willing — and not willing — to do about them.

The Taiwanese Elephant
Taiwan is the elephant in the living room that we all have tried to ignore. Beijing sees the island as a breakaway province that must inevitably be reunited with the motherland. Taiwan is the bottom line of Chinese foreign policy, the place that Beijing would most likely use force to assert its will or to fend off what it sees as foreign interference. When we ask why China wanted American nuclear technology, we need look no further than Taiwan.

The fate of Taiwan is Reason Number One why the Chinese are so adamant that countries should not intervene in one another’s “internal” affairs. Beijing’s rulers figure that if they are not making trouble for us in Cuba, we have no business bothering them about their renegade island. Those Red Army nukes are meant to enforce this view by saying, “stay out of our back yard.”

The trouble is that China has a big back yard. Besides Taiwan, we need to be concerned with Tibet, India (with which China shares a tense Himalayan border), Russia (another historically tense border), Burma (where the Chinese apparently maintain good working relations with a repressive junta), Korea (China probably does not want a united, prosperous and free Korea right next door, preferring to keep the peninsula quiet but divided), Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia, Japan (the traditional rival and not-too-long-ago invader), and even Indonesia and the Philippines, whose jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea overlap China’s.

Some of these countries are important U.S. trade and political partners right now. Others represent the potential for continued improvement in world trade and living standards in the years to come. All will be watching carefully to see how we handle the Taiwan question.

Which Model: Berlin or Prague?
The Taiwanese, for now, also maintain the one-China fiction. Under the right circumstances, Taiwan probably would be more than happy to rejoin the mainland, thus solving the problem for good. But if Taipei continues to develop on a different path than Beijing, its people may eventually decide to borrow the phrase penned by Jefferson and “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” What then?

I suspect the authorities in Beijing are better students of our own history than we are. Their policy, at any rate, seems to grow out of close attention to how we reacted at key moments in the Cold War.

In 1948 the Berlin airlift kept the Western-governed portion of that city from being starved and swallowed by the Soviet zone. For four decades thereafter, maintaining a free West Berlin was a central concern of NATO policy, backed by every military resource the alliance possessed.

In contrast, there was no Western response when Warsaw Pact troops rolled into Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. By the time the day of reckoning came for these places, the Soviet military bear was too big to take on for anything so marginal as a small Central European country. After all, the Soviet-led alliance was staying on its “own” territory, even though the natives happened to disagree.

Chinese policymakers are defining Taiwan in exactly these terms. By insisting that Taiwan is unalterably a part of China, they assert a right to rule there even if they never win an election in Taiwan or on the mainland. By adding a credible, long-range military threat to the United States, they neutralize the only force that could realistically stand in their way. What American president is going to risk Armageddon over an island that practically no non-Chinese American has ever visited? Once U.S. promises of support are shown to be hollow, Taiwan becomes much more susceptible to pressures such as the missiles that Beijing occasionally lobs at it.

In the 1930s through 1945, Japan tried to replace crumbling European empires with its own “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Only America stood in the way. It took history’s only nuclear war to settle matters.

Do we really believe that countries with elected leaders, free expression and open markets make better partners? Do we care what happens to Taiwan, as long as the next order for talking dolls gets filled? If we do, we had better develop a sensible, credible policy that coordinates trade and investment policies with clear military and diplomatic commitments. If we don’t, we ought to consider how we will deal with the rest of Asia if China ever decides to foreclose the mortgage on Taiwan’s future.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.