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Like the First Cold War? We're Headed for Another

Hard-liners in both China and the US are producing increasing bilateral friction. Each side has much to lose.

A NEW, different kind of cold war between the United States and China is possible - and absolutely unnecessary. Should it occur, its costs would make the stakes in the current US budget debate appear modest.

In Beijing, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and reformers seek to deflect charges of being soft on American "hegemonists." In Iowa, Pat Buchanan blasts both the Clinton administration and his Republican rivals for "being the bellhops and errand boys of the Fortune 500" with respect to China.

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Hard-liners in both countries feed off one another, producing mounting friction and misperception. Popular attitudes are hardening as well: Americans have images of "dying rooms" in Chinese orphanages; growing numbers of Chinese believe the US seeks to weaken and humiliate China. One result of all this could be unintentional conflict in the Taiwan Straits.

A second cold war would be quite different from the first: To begin, the US and China are now much more economically interdependent than were the US and the Soviet Union. Washington and Beijing will have incentive to temper conflict.

Second, in the post-World-War-II period, allies followed the US lead because of its economic superiority and the immediacy of the twin threats of land invasion in Europe and thermonuclear destruction. Traditional allies will be much more reticent to follow Washington's lead in the new era. Moreover, America's Asian economic partners will be cautious, because intra-Asian trade (including China) was more than $500 billion in 1994 and is growing rapidly. And finally, the information revolution and technology diffusion make ideas of 1950s-style containment silly.

Questionable linkage

These differences aside, a new freeze with China would resurrect many familiar concepts and problems. We already are seeing this:

During much of the first cold war, Washington sought to link benefits given to Moscow in one domain with Soviet behavior in some other realm. American grain sales and participation in the Olympics were linked to Moscow's behavior in the third world. Most-favored-nation (MFN) tariff treatment for the Soviet Union was linked to the emigration of Jews and others. Linkage made productive Washington-Moscow ties impossible because positive dimensions of the relationship were generally held hostage to the problems.

Now, a year and a half after President Clinton "delinked" China's trade treatment from its human rights behavior, some in Congress are again calling for "relinkage" to express displeasure with Beijing's summary conviction of dissident Wei Jingsheng, among other things. There will almost certainly be a major fight over MFN for Beijing in 1996, after a partial respite in the annual struggle last year. Others in the administration are pointing to the political linkage between China's human rights behavior and an atmosphere conducive to China's admittance to the World Trade Organization. Showing that two can play the linkage game, Beijing suspended defense and arms-control discussions with Washington in retaliation for Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's mid-1995 visit to Cornell University.

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Linkage expands conflict, makes it impossible to pursue common interests, and forces each side to harm those on the other side who have a stake in positive relations. Deterrence and credibility were watchwords in the first cold war. Both superpowers used threat to deter aggressive behavior; to be effective, threats had to be credible. The concepts of deterrence, threat, and credibility are emerging in US-China ties. Taiwan wants more modern weapons to deter possible coercion by Beijing; Beijing modernizes forces and engages in military exercises to deter any possible Taipei move toward de jure independence. And Washington seeks to deter Taipei from going independent and Beijing from using force, finding it hard to be credible to either.

Similarly, as China's navy grows more capable of unilaterally seizing islands in strategic shipping lanes in the South China Sea, Washington may conclude it needs to more credibly deter such potential actions.

Action-reaction cycle

The action-reaction cycle propelled the first cold war's arms race. One nation increases its military capabilities because of perceived growth in the capabilities of an opponent. This prompts the first nation to increase its capabilities in reaction. This interaction produces an upward spiral in weaponry, reduces everyone's security, promotes instability, and is expensive. Such a process has begun in the Asia-Pacific region.

Discounting many exaggerations, Beijing has in recent years increased military spending, purchased some aircraft and other equipment from Russia, and is modernizing its modest strategic force. Recently, Beijing has conducted missile tests near Taiwan, held a nuclear test, and engaged in troop-landing exercises. In turn, Taipei is shopping for more weapons. Were Washington to sell them in substantial numbers, China would further expand its military capability and Washington would be in another major argument with Beijing. And seeing mounting military expenditures, an arms race in the Taiwan Strait, and hostility between China and the US, China's smaller neighbors would acquire more weapons (as they already are doing). The US will become entangled in this costly and destabilizing arms spiral.

If a new cold war develops, much of its dynamic will derive from these concepts and resulting problems. There will be less security, at higher cost, throughout the Asia-Pacific region. It is time for leaders in both Beijing and Washington to draw back, articulate the strategic rationale for positive ties, exercise self-restraint in areas of intense concern to one another, and coldly examine the costs of failure.

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