In trying to defrost its chilly relationship with China, the Clinton administration has overshot the mark. Its rapprochement with Beijing has sent political tremors through East and South Asia. The increasingly cozy U.S.-Chinese relationship -- described by President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in terms like "strategic cooperation" and "strategic partnership" -- has alarmed Taiwan, unsettled longtime U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, and prodded India to unveil its nuclear weapons program. Such reactions will have long-term repercussions for Washington's political and military roles in Asia.


Attributing New Delhi's decision to conduct nuclear tests and move toward "weaponizing" its atomic program solely to the evolving U.S.-Chinese relationship is an oversimplification. The five-decade-old feud with Pakistan, as well as domestic politics, clearly played a role. Nevertheless, Indian officials and opinion leaders vehemently stressed not only the alleged security threat posed by China but Washington's apparent tilt toward Beijing. India's defense minister, George Fernandes, reacted bluntly to U.S. criticism of the tests. "I would ask Bill Clinton only one question. And it would be this: Why is it that you feel yourself so close to China that you can trust China with nuclear weapons ellipse but you cannot trust India?" The strategy editor of The Hindu newspaper reflected the same sense of irritation and betrayal: "We were being told to stay in a small box while the U.S. gave South Asia to China." Even a prominent critic of the tests, former Prime Minister I. K. Gujral, asked, "If you have decided that this side of Suez is an area of influence of China, what should an Indian policymaker do?"

American officials further alienated the Indian government by contemptuously dismissing protests about growing U.S.-Chinese ties. The scorn over Delhi's objections to Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin's joint declaration in June pledging cooperation to stem nuclear weapon and ballistic missile proliferation and promote peace and stability in South Asia was typical. The Indian government noted that it was "ironical that two countries that have directly and indirectly contributed to the unabated proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems in our neighborhood are presuming to prescribe the norms for nonproliferation."

Such rebukes understandably irked Clinton and Albright, but Albright's reaction betrayed a complete unwillingness to accord Delhi's concerns even a modicum of respect. She accused the Indians of acting as though a call for a halt to proliferation "doesn't apply to them, that everybody is out of step with them." She added ominously, "They had better stop dismissing statements like this." The secretary acted as if India had no right to object to a coordinated U.S.-Chinese policy on key issues -- including Kashmir -- in India's backyard. From India's perspective, the declaration looked like the product of a U.S.-Chinese condominium to dictate outcomes in South Asia. No major power could accept such a development placidly. Indeed, Washington's insensitivity may intensify, rather than reduce, Delhi's determination to build a nuclear deterrent and adopt a more assertive foreign policy.


Warming U.S.-Chinese relations have naturally worried Taiwan. In a brief statement during his trip to China, President Clinton stopped short of embracing China's position that Taiwan is merely a renegade province, but affirmed, "We don't support independence for Taiwan, or two Chinas, or one Taiwan, one China. And we don't believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement." Premier Vincent Siew reacted harshly, asserting that China and the United States were not entitled to negotiate about Taiwan's political status; that could be determined only by the people in Taiwan. Parris Chang, a member of Taiwan's National Assembly and head of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party's mission in the United States, accused Clinton of "selling out" Taiwan.

Taiwan worried, first, that China would exploit Clinton's comment and the newly strengthened relationship with the United States for leverage in any cross-straits dialogue about Taiwan's future. Those fears proved well founded. Barely a week after Clinton's Shanghai statement, Beijing expressed confidence that Taipei would "get a clear understanding of the situation." Lest anyone fail to appreciate the substance of the new reality, the official newspaper China Daily quoted a high Chinese official as saying that Clinton's comments had "provided favorable conditions" for resolving the Taiwan issue.

Second, Taipei worried that the new rhetorical tilt toward Beijing presaged reductions in -- and ultimately elimination of -- U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Taiwanese officials and opinion shapers noted that prominent American experts on East Asia were already advocating that course. Even before the Clinton-Jiang summit, Taipei appeared to be hedging its bets, most tangibly by developing a sophisticated indigenous defense industry. Last year the Taiwanese air force commissioned its first wing of domestically built fighters. The Free China Journal admitted that the project "was aimed at circumventing difficulties in procuring advanced arms from abroad, especially the United States." Parris Chang urged his country to build submarines "with the transfer of technology from abroad" -- advice Taipei appears to be heeding.

The growing lack of confidence in U.S. willingness to defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression or intimidation is pushing Taiwan to become more militarily self-reliant. Like India, it is seeking to protect its security in the context of a U.S.-Chinese strategic partnership.


The president's decision to fly directly to Beijing and return without stopping in Tokyo made Japan nervous. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley assured his hosts that the United States continues to regard the alliance with Japan as its most important bilateral relationship in the region, but the Clinton-Jiang summit suggested otherwise. A front-page story in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun contended that the summit "highlighted the idea of 'Japan's passing.' " Atsushi Kuse, a leading political analyst in Tokyo, observed: "Given the fact that Clinton spent a full nine days in China, and the nature of his visit -- that the discussions were much broader than expected, including business, economics... it gives Japanese leadership the clear signal that America is serious about deepening its relationship with China."

Perhaps most damaging was Clinton's comment, in his joint news conference with Jiang, that "the United States and China will do whatever we can to restore confidence in the Japanese economy." Tellingly, Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, while in Beijing on June 26, heaped praise on the Chinese for holding the line against currency devaluation and taking other measures to stabilize the regional economic environment. At the same time he sharply criticized Tokyo, insisting that Japan "must solve its problems." Harvey Sicherman, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, observed that Rubin's Beijing confab was "the first time since World War II that the U.S. and China had joined together in publicly criticizing Japan."

Unlike their counterparts in India and Taiwan, Japanese officials have not yet moved assertively to counter the U.S.-Chinese partnership. Publicly, they even profess to be unconcerned about the summit's implications for Japan; privately, however, their comments convey a different attitude. The Sankei Shimbun reported that "some government officials have expressed concern that from now on the United States and China may try to take the greater initiative in addressing security issues in the Far East." On another occasion, a Foreign Ministry source admitted to a Mainichi Shimbun correspondent that there was "growing concern" that "the United States may try to use both a China card and a Japanese card." Other high-level diplomatic sources added that if Washington sought to establish such an equidistant relationship, Tokyo might be forced to review its strategy and become a political superpower that could contend with the United States and China.1

There are already a few intriguing hints of a change in Japanese attitudes toward their country's political and military role. In the buildup to the Clinton-Jiang summit, former Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa published several articles arguing that the U.S. troop presence in Japan be sharply reduced and that Japan play a far more vigorous role in the alliance. The timing might have been coincidence, but it also might have been a trial balloon sent up by a faction in Japan's political elite to gauge sentiment in both their country and the United States. Hosokawa is by far the most prominent Japanese to advocate radically revising the strategic relationship with the United States.

There are other indications that Japanese leaders are becoming impatient with their country's dependence on the United States. Tokyo has been unusually resistant to U.S. pressure to change its economic policies. Similarly, when North Korea conducted its test of the intermediate-range Taepo Dong-1 missile -- overflying Japan in the process -- Japan showed uncustomary hostility to U.S. attempts to dampen the crisis. Indeed, Japan immediately sought to stanch financial outflows to North Korea (primarily from Koreans residing in Japan) and hinted that it might conduct a missile test of its own to launch a satellite -- something that would upset Japan's neighbors and was certainly not favored by the United States.


The reactions of India, Taiwan, and Japan may be blessings in disguise, since the choice of China as a strategic partner is misguided. Even assuming that America would benefit from elevating a regional power to that status (a highly debatable proposition), U.S. leaders should logically prefer a stable power. After all, Washington's stated objective is to maintain the current network of economic relations and the relatively benign security environment. It is not at all clear that China is now -- much less will continue to be -- a status quo power.

Although China's extensive economic ties with its Asian neighbors and the United States are important incentives for status quo behavior, other factors encourage aggressive revisionism. Most important, China still nurses grievances over the humiliations and territorial amputations suffered in the nineteenth century. Hence the return of Hong Kong acquired an importance that transcended the territory's economic value, as it became a symbol of China's restored national pride. The scheduled return of Macau in 1999 is another step, but China's leaders and population may not consider the process complete until Taiwan is regained, the land taken by the Russian empire recovered, and Beijing's claims in the South China and East China Seas vindicated. China may not, in fact, harbor expansionist ambitions, but such an array of unresolved problems points to a less sanguine conclusion. Moreover, the history of international relations shows that rising great powers, especially those with territorial claims, typically pursue assertive and abrasive policies; consider the United States throughout the nineteenth century or Wilhelmine Germany during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The jury is still out on whether China will replicate such behavior, but assuming that American and Chinese security interests are compatible enough to warrant a strategic partnership is unduly optimistic. Moreover, if those who contend that the two countries' interests are likely to conflict are correct, choosing China as a strategic partner would be folly. Indeed, if the concerns about China's future strategic behavior have any merit, the United States should be pursuing precisely the opposite course: encouraging other regional powers or groups of powers to counterbalance China. As UCLA's Deepak Lal says, "It would seem bizarre to penalize the one country in the region that might provide a strategic counterweight [i.e., India]." Japan could also counterbalance China.


Perhaps the Clinton administration is trying to modify China's behavior by entangling it in an elaborate web of diplomatic and economic ties with the United States. In a speech just before his departure for China, Clinton rebuked those who advocated isolating it. On other occasions, the president and his advisers have cautioned that treating China as an enemy may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But other factors also appear to be playing a role. In particular, Washington has become increasingly disenchanted with Tokyo, its traditional, albeit dependent, partner in Asia, because of its inaction in the region's economic crisis.

Whatever the mix of motives, the administration's policy is misguided. Clinton rightly insists that isolating China would be foolish and counter productive. Indeed, the United States should seek opportunities to work with China when the interests of the two countries overlap. Containing North Korea's nuclear program and otherwise reducing tensions on the peninsula would seem to be such an opportunity. But engaging China and maintaining a cordial relationship is one thing; forming a strategic partnership is quite another.

The last thing the United States should do is encourage China to see itself as the dominant regional power with America's blessing -- or, worse, combine such a course with punishing India for wanting to counterbalance Chinese power and keeping Japan as America's carefully tethered and barely trusted junior security assistant. That is a blueprint for a brittle, bipolar environment in Asia in which the only security actors that matter are the United States and China. The likely outcome would be eventual Chinese hegemony, since China's economic and military power is gradually increasing and the region lies far from the principal locus of U.S. power.

Far better, from the standpoint of American interests, would be to avoid an overt strategic partnership with any Asian state and encourage the emergence of multiple power centers. The existence of several significant security actors would complicate the calculations of China or any other power with hegemonic ambitions. Ironically, Washington's courtship of Beijing may accelerate such a process. India has already concluded that the United States will not shield it from China and has gone nuclear to protect its security. Japan, Taiwan, and other Cold War clients have had their confidence in U.S. constancy badly shaken and are beginning to pursue independent courses. Washington will rue these unintended results of its China policy.

*Ken Yamada, "Search for Ways to Coexist: Clinton's First Trip to China," Mainichi Shimbun, June 25, 1998.

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