Standoff Over Spy Plane: U.S. Confronts Neo-Reds

Sometimes shock therapy is good for us. For 10 years, since

the Gulf War, the United States under the first George Bush and Bill Clinton

wandered in search of a foreign policy. Since we seemed to face no serious

threats, the quest had a frivolous air, as of a Talk magazine account of the travails of a celebrity: Stiffany

Leers has three platinum records and an eating disorder; what is a 17-year-old

demigoddess to do? Similarly, Uncle Sam toured the bazaars of the world, wads

of dollars in hand, beset by touts offering rare and dubious items such as

voting Haitians, well-fed Somalis and peaceful Yugoslavs.

The plane-jacking in the South China Sea blows away the

clouds of idleness. An American spy plane, making a routine flight in

international air space, was jumped and forced to the ground, where its secrets

were rifled and its crew held until such time as we apologized for being

attacked. All this was done not by a so-called rogue state-some rabid,

overarmed raccoon like Iraq or North Korea-but by China, which has a billion

people, a huge economy and a military-industrial complex bent on recreating all

the technology it cannot steal.

In the Bush I–Clinton years-call it the Era of Feeling

Good-there were two paradigms for viewing China. The vision that became

official policy was an outgrowth of Henry Kissinger’s opening to China during

the Nixon years. China has become a conservative power, eager to develop its

wealth and strength without projecting its power by revolutionary or aggressive

means. The suit-and-tie-wearing rulers of Beijing are not interested in

subsidizing African despots or hairy American radicals. They want to sell us

sneakers and stereo parts, and sell themselves to their subjects as purveyors

of prosperity. We could deal with such people; the phrase the Clinton

administration temporarily applied to them was “strategic partners.”

The minority view held that it only takes one side to fight,

and that China, for all its blandishments, was doing just that, whether we

realized it or not. For all its sheen, China is essentially a retro-Soviet

state, with its own gulag and captive nations and a military agenda to match.

This view found consistent sympathy only among the Tibet-loving left and the

“national-greatness” right. But every time a military secret popped up on a

suspicious computer terminal, or a campaign contribution flowed through a White

House coffee, the view gained wider currency.

Both views are largely true. Compared to its Maoist past,

China is a conservative power, interested in pulling itself up in the world.

But such powers can also be dangerous. The Cold War and World War II may have

made us see conflict in excessively ideological terms. Ideologies, whether

religious or revolutionary, can shake the world like a cocktail. But there can

also be competition among great powers when none of them has utopian delusions.

Sometimes-as in 1914-these competitions become deadly.

China’s behavior depends primarily on what Chinese communism

means now. Intellectually, the communist leadership are like Voltaire-reading

French aristocrats circa 1788. They lounge around Versailles, not going on

Crusades and believing in the rights of man. Why not lop off their heads? To

avoid this fate, the Chinese communists deploy lots of firepower, and two

rationales for their rule. Call them the principles of neo-communism.

The first rationale is that the neo-communists have made

China prosper. The countryside may still be grim, but that is nothing new. So

long as the economy bounded along at a 10 percent annual growth rate, enough

peasants could be sucked into the cities to raise the general level. In the

middle and upper tiers, meanwhile, people made out very well indeed. The second

rationale is nationalism. Slogans about workers of the world turn out to be

less compelling than the belief that China is the center of the world. In

return for money and pride, the communists expect their people to leave power

in their hands. And since “all experience hath shown that mankind are more

disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable,” why wouldn’t the Chinese people

accept the bargain? It sure beats the Great Leap Forward.

Lately, however, neo-communism has encountered difficulties.

Growth never continues forever, here or there. Chinese growth has particular

problems arising from the inefficiencies of cronyism and thievery. According to

the rules of the neo-communist system, a general’s daughter may be the ideal

choice to run Yangtze Widgets. But that does not mean that she is capable of

running it well, or that the boodle funneled to her father, her children and her

third cousins will not eat into whatever profits she manages to make.

Problems cause anxiety-hence the crazed Chinese campaign

against the Falun Gong religion. Falun Gong is crazy enough itself -an

invented-yesterday cult whose adepts think that breathing exercises will enable

them to fly. There is, however, nothing socially pernicious about it. But if

the Chinese communists continue in their program of vilification and torture,

they may well drive the hapless devotees to activism.

Persecution, however satisfying, is not distraction enough

for a great nation. So the neo-communists must pursue nationalism, ingesting

Hong Kong and Macao, Sinofying Tibet and preparing for the day when they can

finally take Taiwan. Playing schoolyard games with a spy plane is one more show

of strength, as well as a test of Bush II.

What should W. do? Never apologize, for starters. The longer

the Chinese keep the airplane and crew, the more likely it becomes that we will

sell Taiwan the Aegis missile defenses it desires to protect itself. Is it time

to put on the full-court press? It is always unpleasant to begin a Cold War,

especially in a recession. If that is the direction we are headed, then we will

need some allies. One that leaps to mind that is not already in our corner is India,

which will outstrip China in population and wealth sometime this century, and

whose upper class (added bonus) speaks English. A second ally would be Vietnam.

The first ambassador could be Senator John McCain. Standoff Over Spy Plane: U.S. Confronts Neo-Reds