Courtesy Reuters

The Faces of Chinese Power

MISUNDERESTIMATIONS

Assessing China's growing power incorrectly has always proved to be hazardous. U.S. policymakers have underestimated China's power at least twice since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, once catastrophically and another time with serious consequences for U.S. credibility. In the fall of 1950, one U.S. official dismissed the possibility that the war-weary government in Beijing would intervene to stop the United States' drive to unify Korea. "I don't think China wants to be chopped up," he said. But he was wrong, and this and other misjudgments led to Beijing's intervention in the Korean War, at enormous human cost to China, the United States, and the Korean people on both sides of the 38th Parallel. President Bill Clinton also underestimated China. In 1993, his administration threatened to suspend normal tariff treatment if Beijing did not improve its human rights record within a year. China proved tougher than expected, and the Clinton administration made an embarrassing U-turn as the ultimatum was about to expire. The episode convinced the Chinese that Washington's tough talk on human rights was little more than campaign rhetoric and that for the United States human rights were an interest secondary to strategic and business concerns.

Accurately assessing the power of China is still a critical task today, especially with renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula and continuing volatility in the Taiwan Strait. Overestimating China's leverage over North Korea is a problem. Since 2002-3, the Bush administration has subcontracted most of the effort to halt North Korea's nuclear programs to Beijing, mistakenly assuming that Beijing has the power and the inclination to stop Pyongyang. The Chinese government does not want nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has considerable leverage over Kim Jong Il, but exercising this power would bring substantial costs to China, and its muscle is unlikely to be sufficient if the United States does not simultaneously give North Korea positive incentives to comply. Washington and Beijing may be cooperating better now, following

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