China policy -- A new realism

By Notra Trulock
web posted January 29, 2001

The Bush foreign policy team faces a daunting challenge as it surveys America's world position in the aftermath of the Clinton era. To be sure, the U.S. sustained its role as the world's only superpower, due mostly to its astonishing riches and the economic prosperity during the past decade. It is truly a blessed nation - able to survive even the corruption and incompetence of Bill Clinton and his foreign policy team. The Clinton team seemed to careen from crisis to crisis and its strategic vision was certainly influenced by factors not commonly associated with foreign policy making. Such as campaign financing from both domestic and foreign sources. As only Bill Clinton could put it, not a single foreign policy decision was influenced "solely" by campaign contributions.

But viewed from the perspective of 1992, Clinton and company really didn't accomplish much. Russia is a lost strategic opportunity; its future still much in doubt, but much of the goodwill felt by Russians toward the U.S. largely squandered by the Clintons. The Middle East seems more unstable than ever, if that is possible. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has actually accelerated over the past decade. The center of gravity in nuclear matters shifted away from Europe into an arc from the Middle East up to the Korean Peninsula.

And then there is China. Clinton's policies towards China can hardly be judged a success, any more so than his policies toward Russia. I want to say that Clinton invested more in the outcome of his China policy than he did in Russia. Certainly a lot of careers were ruined along the way and it may be fair to say that China was the "third rail" of the Clinton foreign policy. By nearly every measure, Clinton foreign policy on China can be judged a failure.

Trade deficits are up substantially to nearly $60B. China has acquired PNTR and membership in WTO; in the latter case, China keeps throwing up obstacles to final action. This means that the supposed benefits to U.S. business from WTO are yet to materialize. Don't hold your breath. Are the Chinese people appreciably better off today in terms of human rights, religious freedoms, etc., than they were 10 years ago? This after all was one of the objectives of the economic emphasis in Clinton policies. The self-immolation of five Fulan Gong members the other day in Tiananmen Square is reminiscent of the Buddhist monks in Saigon in another era.

Our relations with our traditional allies in the region and other potential checks to China, such as India, have deteriorated as a result of the clear "tilt" to China. Clinton's acceptance of the "three no's", his "dissing" of Japan during the 1998 trip to China, and his denunciation of India's nuclear tests while ignoring those of Pakistan could all have been scripted in Beijing (and maybe were). The Clinton policy emphasized economics over geo-politics and even pretended that geo-political calculations were old fashion. So we have spurned old allies, accomplished little with China and have created the possibility of further erosion in the U.S. position in Asia. Our allies are already scrambling around looking for alternative ways to oppose Chinese domination of the region.

China's military modernization is changing the balance of strategic power in the region. A "strategic partnership" with Russia and diplomacy has secured China's western borders (it still has to deal with an insurgency in Xinjiang), allowing China to shift forces to bases along the Taiwan Straits. It has emphasized the build-up of its missile forces and achieved improved accuracies. It clearly intends to overwhelm Taiwanese air bases, ports, and other military facilities with a massive missile laydown. It has also improved its ability to target U.S. forces moving into the area to protect Taiwan. Longer-range missiles and Russian anti-shipping missiles deployed on SOVREMMENY-class destroyers and patrol craft complicate U.S. power projection calculations, at best. China is also improving its air defense capabilities by deploying S-300 (SA-1x) missiles opposite Taiwan. The combination of massive missile attacks and robust air defense is clearly intended to negate Taiwan's advantage in air superiority aircraft. Beyond the balance with the U.S., access to Russian military fire sales and U.S. technology has certainly improved its position vis-à-vis the other states of the region.

China's ability to improve its strategic deterrent has not been hindered by Clinton policy. Besides nuclear secrets, China has acquired missile guidance and accuracy technologies and know-how. China's second- and third-strike capability against U.S. targets throughout the Pacific Command has steadily improved and will continue to do so. China's threats against the U.S. homeland and US PACOM forces are more credible today than they were 10 years ago. An effective strategic deterrent is the linchpin of China's regional pretensions.

In truth, we seem to have bought into the notion that China is the ascendant power in Asia and we had better get on that train before it leaves the station. In so doing, we have created the conditions for a future "bug-out" from Asia forgetting the importance of that region for our economic prosperity, energy security, and democratic values. Calls for "continuity" in our policies on China and East Asia in general are not reassuring. So now what? How should we think about our China policy and where do we go from here?

1. First, let's stop kidding ourselves about China. Obviously, we can't know how things will turn out 10-15 years from now and no serious person advocates making China an enemy. China is not the future Soviet Union, it is unlikely to challenge our way of life and we are not locked in an ideological struggle to the death; this is not a new Cold War. It seems to me the parallel to late 19th Century diplomacy is more striking: rising powers (Germany, Russia, Japan) with strong feelings of grievance and inferiority, military modernization programs that became increasingly threatening to neighbors, etc. Whatever the case, the dominant theme in Administration policy making has been that of a "weak China" or the Red Team view. Although this characterization is a bit extreme, there is a predominant view of China within the Central Intelligence Agency and much of the Pentagon. This view sees China as far behind the U.S. in terms of its economic and military strength, too distracted internally to fashion or carry out an integrated external policy, and frankly just not much of a "threat" either now or in the future. Moreover, trends to democratization and human rights are all going in the right direction; if only those Republican hawks on the Hill would just shut up and sit down things will come out fine. The predominance of this view explains much; it explains the CIA's fierce opposition to the Cox Committee's report, its obstruction of efforts to get to the bottom of the Loral/Hughes missile scandal, its refusal to examine thousands of pages of material from the "walk-in" source for years after acquisition (by comparison, CIA officials continued to exploit and distribute Soviet materials even after they were convinced that the sources were under control), its continuous efforts to downplay indications of the role of espionage in China's nuclear-missile build-up; etc. These only cover the military aspects of CIA's assessments of China; hard telling what the "political analysts" were telling the White House. The "China" assessments by this group probably ought to be treated with the same caution accorded to Soviet economic statistics in the 1980s. By the way, all of this occurred on George Tenet's watch, either during his term as DCI or Deputy DCI.

Likewise, the FBI's dismantlement of its counterintelligence capability especially affected its China section. Hence the debacle of the KINDRED SPIRIT case and the FBI's response to the campaign financing scandal. One obvious response to fix this: help the DCI and D/FBI into early retirement. All this happened on their watch; they both liked their jobs too much to resign in protest or they agreed with what was happening in their agencies. Neither explanation warrants their retention by the new administration.

And frankly, the Pentagon isn't much better. The military has mostly laughed off the China threat for the past decade. There are notable exceptions: Andrew Marshall in OSD and Mark A. Stokes, for example. Marshall holds the view that in our understanding of China we are in a position comparable to the early 1950s or late 1940s, when we took the decision to invest in academic programs of study of the Soviet Union, develop language capabilities, etc. Absent such investments now, our strategic perception of China will continue to be dominated by the Red Team. So, lets start telling the truth about China and confronting unpleasant facts and developments; stop dismissing these as "unconfirmed" or "alarmist".

2. Reassert the importance of geo-politics in Asian policy. Engagement as a policy has clearly failed to achieve it's stated objectives. Although some in the new Administration have advocated continuity in this regard, it is also clear that a balance needs to be struck. If anything, the balance should tip to geo-politics over economic considerations. Emphasize the importance of our Asian allies like Japan and make clear the role Japan plays in our Asian policy calculations. Clinton painted President Bush into a narrow corner with his acceptance of China's "three no's". President Bush will need to find a way to back out of that corner; moving cautiously, but firmly is the best course on the Taiwan issue. India and the U.S. would seem to be natural allies, but U.S. preferences for Pakistan are long standing. Nurture both, but demonstrate the importance of India for U.S. interests in South Asia. Little things, like not parroting the Chinese line on who is the nuclear aggressor in South Asia, would be helpful.

3. Defend Taiwan. Ballistic missile defenses will need to be extended to Taiwan, which is under a severe threat from the China missile build-up. The Chinese will scream bloody murder...let them. America simply must not be seen to be letting down another Asian ally. Ballistic missile defense is not threatening or offensive in nature, contrary to the myths of the arms controllers. China has made its objectives on Taiwan very clear, so-called Red Teamers aside. Military force is on the table; China will hit quickly and not give the U.S. time to build-up forces in the region. BMD is critical to the future survivability of Taiwan. The defense of Taiwan has the added factor of assuring our allies in the region, like Japan, that the U.S. will not "bug-out" on its commitments. Such a perception could be disaster: Japan would be confronted with the choice of accommodating China or becoming more self-reliant. Self-reliance could take the form of nuclear defenses.

4. Rethink, reinvent Counterintelligence, Information Security, Technology Protection.
Maybe one of the worse outcomes of the Wen Ho Lee case is that it makes the U.S. safe for future Chinese espionage. The charges of ethnic profiling and racism obscure what every CI officer knows too well; certain countries repeatedly employ ethnic profiling and ethnic targeting in pursuit of their intelligence objectives. At the same time, CI officers can't get too lazy and simply assume that a person's ethnicity automatically makes that person a suspect. Target, maybe, suspect, no way.

The Justice Department's handling of this case, ironically, may have created a more inviting target for espionage at the labs and elsewhere. First, it discredited very real concerns about Chinese espionage and, secondly, it may have the effect of making our scientists more, not less, willing to "engage" their Chinese counterparts. A "no harm, no foul" approach will only increase the risks of leakage of our secrets. Likewise, the ham-fisted approach taken to security by the Clintons is more likely to increase resistance to the very real threat of espionage.

What to do? First, take seriously a revised approach to declassification. I would agree that too much is classified, but don't declassify information that can help would-be nuclear states - no matter how old or supposedly obsolete. Don't work under arbitrary deadlines to accomplish declassification, do it right or don't do it at all.

Secondly, formulate a more sophisticated approach to counterintelligence training and education. Stop treating scientists and others like morons; adopt some of the training methods used in other fields.

Third, let's be serious about information security. Most of the measures proposed thus far are half-baked and probably don't address the real problems anyway. We need systemic solutions to these problems, not the latest techno-gadget that some hardware vendor is trying to sell the government.

In short, we need a new sense of realism about China, our relationship with this rising power, and a clear vision of what we want from this relationship. Business opportunities and campaign finances are not synonymous with U.S. national interests. But above all ...let's stop lying to ourselves about China and its intentions.

Notra Trulock is the Free Congress Foundation's Director of Media Relations.

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