WHILE Washington debates US policy toward Somalia and Bosnia, fundamental changes underway in East Asia, largely driven by China's economic ascendancy, deserve far greater priority.
Dramatic economic growth in the People's Republic of China (PRC) during the past 10 years, averaging around 8.9 percent, has laid the groundwork for that nation's rise as a significant regional military power. This, combined with the opacity of China's political processes, is causing great unease throughout Asia.
Many leaders in the region believe that China's drive toward great-power status mirrors its historical tendency to view itself as the Middle Kingdom, with China at the center and the countries on the periphery not even having the right to argue with Beijing.
While these fears may be overblown, beliefs that China intends to expand its geopolitical influence in Asia are widespread in the region. Recent developments lend even greater credence to this view:
* With the ``fire sale'' of excess Russian military equipment and the widespread availability of state-of-the-art technologies, Beijing is accelerating its military modernization. Chinese officials, however, claim that their current inventory of equipment and weapons is remarkably obsolete. But to other Asian countries, Chinese acquisition of advanced fighter-bomber jets and new classes of aircraft, ships with stand-off missile systems, the upgrading of amphibious and submarine capabilities, and gradual expansion of nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals suggest convincingly that Beijing seeks to achieve a position of military superiority in the region. The first priority: the South China Sea.
* Simultaneously, the PRC is adopting a more assertive foreign policy, especially in pursuing claims of sovereignty over vast portions of the South China Sea. Underlying this policy is China's desire to control the Paracel and Spratly groups of islands that are believed to contain a wealth of oil, mineral, and food resources within their respective 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones. What ought to be of grave concern for US policymakers, but obviously is not, are the consequences if the PRC achieves a position of strategic dominance across Southeast Asia and its vital ocean shipping routes. Steady expansion of commerce throughout the region has sharply raised the security importance of these routes to Asia and the US.
* The progress of China's economic modernization itself poses a security question. Rapid economic development is critical to raise the standard of living of an increasing population. Yet, if the economy overheats, or if rampant inflation takes hold, a resulting economic crises could lead to instability and chaos. Huge flows of migrants within, and in some cases, out of China are already a problem. The outflow of hundreds of thousands of additional refugees would be extremely destabilizing to neighboring countries.
China's military and economic ascendancy will affect relations with Japan. No other intra-Asian relationship is as important to future regional stability as this one. Yet there are ominous signs that strategic competition could emerge. The rise of a Chinese ``triangle'' of commerce (encompassing Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the PRC) is bound to fuel economic competition. Likewise, China's military buildup will likely create military tensions between the two nations, if confidence-building measures are unsuccessful. Privately, some Chinese military leaders cite Japan's potential military threat as a reason for their own military buildup.
Finally, most Asian nations look to the US for strategic leadership. Only the US has the leverage, political clout, and regional confidence to help maintain the regional balance of power. In the words of Tommy Koh, former Singaporean Ambassador to the US, ``America's presence in the region keeps Asians from provoking fights with Asians.'' Yet there is widespread concern that the US is turning excessively inward and is in danger of losing the political will and military strength to maintain a stabilizing presence in the region.
Enlightened self-interest should keep the US engaged in East Asia. East Asia offers the US promising markets for its increasingly export-oriented economy. American trade with Asia has quadrupled in the past 15 years, far exceeding that with Europe. Yet, without a strategic presence in the region, and the power that backs it, the US will be less able to negotiate and sustain a trading environment that will allow American companies to gain favorable access to Asia's lucrative markets.
President Clinton can make a distinguished niche for himself in history if he provides that strategic leadership necessary to help build an international order based on economic growth, the rule of law, and democratic principles. A higher profile US-China policy that is more sensitive to the implications of current security trends in Asia, as well as to the tremendous internal challenges confronting China's leaders, is the key.