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Saturday, June 16, 2001

Hawkish China policy serves U.S. ill

LOS ANGELES -- The foreign-policy portfolio of the Bush administration is obviously a work in progress, but its increasing sourness toward China is beginning to alarm many Americans. Last week's Defense Department decision to back away from meetings and contacts between the Chinese and American militaries came across as provocative. And the tit-for-tat cancellation of future U.S. ships' calls to Hong Kong, after Beijing itself spiked the latest one, seemed only to add to the momentum of a relationship headed downhill already. Where will this deterioration stop, and how vicious will the chilly and risky volleying get?

The administration hawks who distrust the Chinese cannot control everything, of course. They won't be able to reverse last year's landmark congressional approval of permanent normal trading relations status for China. They could appear disconnected to reality if they continue to resist the tide of international public sentiment on the issue of the 2008 Olympics for China. And are the Bush people really thinking of boycotting this fall's annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai? This important event helps raise consensus on issues on both sides of the Pacific.

The current Bush "chiller-in-chief" is U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who sometimes comes across as a Cold War nostalgia buff. The Pentagon cited security concerns in justifying the aforementioned military-contact pullback, a move Rumsfeld had been itching to effect for months. In truth, America learns at least as much from these exchanges as China does from us.

Can anyone stop Rumsfeld, a veteran Washington player in prior Republican administrations? To be sure, the sudden Republican loss of control of the Senate is an unexpected obstacle for him. The newly ensconced Democratic chairmen on key Senate committees are not enthused about an open-checkbook policy for the expensive, unproven weaponry that many Bush-campaign contributors favor and would benefit economically from developing and manufacturing. And the probable result of a determined American arms buildup would be to trigger a corresponding Asian arms buildup, not just in China but in Japan, too. The logic of how this would make the region safer is hard to follow.

Bush hawks could also be frustrated by clever Chinese diplomacy. The Chinese may regard Rumsfeld's provocations as a tempting but dangerous detour from their solid -- and so far successful -- strategy of "It's the economy, stupid." This should mean that almost anything is less important to the leadership than economic development. Beijing needs to resist the Rumsfeld neo-Cold War fandango that the Americans would use to justify the huge domestic expense of a national missile-defense buildup, and build on the development path that has helped lift many Chinese out of poverty.

To be sure, the impediments keeping the hawks from flying too high are far from foolproof. Democratic Senate committee chairmen have little to say about the public rhetoric that the Bush administration deploys. Nor can the Senate force serious administrative consultation on key security issues of concern to the whole East Asian region, be it peace on the Korean Peninsula or the mess in Indonesia. And as the Bush hawks noisily flap their wings, the Chinese in Beijing care enough about what is said publicly to not only sulk when insulted, but sometimes to do far more when taunted. Beijing could greatly enhance Rumsfeld's hand by overreacting.

It's conceivable, of course, that the new Rumsfeld strategy will bring China to its knees, much as U.S. President Ronald Reagan did to the Soviets when he outspent them militarily in the 1980s. But China has nothing like the former Soviet Union's nuclear capability -- and won't have for decades.

For these reasons, the new Rumsfeld policy is premature and, indeed, high-risk, for it could elicit from a frightened Beijing precisely the nasty, aggressive conduct that the American hawks say the new U.S. policy is designed to deter. It could also divide all of Asia into warring Chinese or American camps. And it could lead to new tensions over Taiwan.

Only the president of the United States can rein in a determined defense secretary, as Rumsfeld definitely is. Sadly, it's far from clear that George W. Bush comprehends the full implications of what is going on.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a columnist with the Honolulu Advertiser, the South China Morning Post and the Straits Times.

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