Editors' Note: Our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Gerald Segal, who died on November 3, 1999. He was 46.

To the Editor:

I take serious issue with Gerald Segal's article ("Does China Matter?" September/October 1999). Segal presents an interesting compilation of statistics and concludes that "the Middle Kingdom, then, is merely a middle power" in terms of its economy, its military strength, and its global political impact. Segal's bottom line is that China is a "theoretical power" that "has mastered the art of diplomatic theater," although he hedges by writing, "It is not that China does not matter at all, but that it matters far less than it and most of the West think."

The debate on whether to engage or to contain China is a sterile one. The question is how Americans can adjust to, and deal with, China's imminent emergence as a major regional and global power, and how they can foster an environment in which China is most likely to make choices that steer its energies into productive, peaceful, and stable relationships across the region and globally.

We are at a crossroads in our relationship with China. Segal's article, although entertaining intellectually, is simply another diversion that does little to help develop a coherent and long-term China policy. I believe that we in the United States are, in fact, paying too little attention to China, and the attention we do pay is perilously short-term and uncoordinated. China does matter.

First, it matters economically. The reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping two decades ago and promoted today by Vice Premier Zhu Rongji and President Jiang Zemin cannot be reversed through entrenched economic interests or communist ideologues. The Chinese Communist Party, with its Leninist-Maoist ideology, is finished. It will hold power only as long as it continues to bring economic growth to its citizens. China may not adopt the American version of an open market economy, but its direction is clear. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are not going to move back to farms and apply for ration cards and residence permits. We can therefore expect increased inward and outward investments, increased imports and exports, the adoption of and adaptation to foreign technology, and a greater role in the regional and global economy, including regional financial markets.

Second, China matters militarily. The country is, of course, modernizing its military. It will be a generation before China is able to develop a fully operational blue-water navy or significant force projection capabilities -- not before 2015 or 2020. But I do see an irredentist China interested in securing its borders as it defines them. China will therefore develop the military force it believes necessary to deal with the possibilities of an unfriendly and united Korea, a rearmed Japan, a stronger nuclear India, and most imminently, a Taiwan seeking formal independence. If a cross-strait dialogue can resume and both Beijing and Taipei find ways to move peacefully toward reconciliation, the principal source of a potential direct conflict with the United States could be ameliorated. China will always look across the Pacific at the United States and wonder about America's intentions in Asia. It will develop the force it believes necessary to serve as a military and political deterrent to perceived American actions and policies.

Third, China matters in global politics. Its significance will develop gradually. China has already begun to play a larger role in the region -- helping ratchet down a North Korea crisis, attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Regional Forum meetings, and participating in the meetings of the leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group. China has also succeessfully improved its relations with neighboring nations, fifteen of which share its borders. If we think Asian geopolitics matters, then we must care deeply about what China is doing.

Finally, issues that arise in areas such as the environment and the Internet can be handled only in a global context. China's impact in each of these will be enormous.

I hope we have learned a lesson from the relationship between Britain and Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, when a dominant state refused to give a rising power the status and prestige the latter felt it deserved. A couple of centuries of perceived humbling by foreign imperialists has led to a strong nationalism that will push China into adopting military and geopolitical policies designed to ensure that such humiliation is never repeated.

Although China may be a middle power today in strictly statistical terms, it would be folly to put off the challenges that a rising China will bring to the fore.


Member, U.S. Senate (D-Mont.), and Member, Senate Committees on Finance and Intelligence