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.