The Coming Conflict with China

In This Review

The Coming Conflict with China

By Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro
Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
245 pp. $23.00

Among those specialists who follow U.S.-China relations, there is a range of views. Some are optimistic; others see at least a 50 percent chance of developing a more cooperative relationship with China. The authors of this book are extreme pessimists. Their thesis is that the United States and China are on a collision course. China's goal is to dominate Asia, and America's goal for more than a century has been to prevent any single power from dominating Asia. China is "virulently anti-American" and has a "grand plan for the future." Thus "an enemy looms on the Eastern horizon and America had better be prepared."

To be sure, this pessimistic version of U.S.-China relations is one possible future scenario. But it overlooks the common interests that both the United States and China have in maintaining regional peace in Asia, in increasing trade and investment relations, and in preventing a new Cold War that would be extremely costly and risky for both countries. Moreover, although the U.S.-China relationship was in free fall for a number of years after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, it has improved considerably in the past year as a result of efforts on both sides. In the next year, there will be a number of high-level visits, and there is at least some chance that the two big powers can reach some strategic understanding on the main issues that divide them: Taiwan, the U.S.-Japan alliance, proliferation, and human rights.

This book is reminiscent of a number of those dealing with Japan-U.S. relations that appeared in the 1980s. The argument then was that Japan and the United States were on a collision course because of Japan's intention to dominate Asia economically. Ten years later, it seems clear that those books were highly oversimplified. It is unfortunate. A more nuanced warning about the risks in U.S.-China relations and the ways to avoid a worst-case outcome would surely be welcome. So would a book with a less sensational title. But, of course, it might not sell as well.