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China: a Future Aggressor in Asia?

New book causes stir over diplomatic strategies for 21st century

The Coming conflict with china

By Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro

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Alfred A. Knopf

245 pp., $23

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, numerous "soothsayers" have emerged in the United States predicting the state of world affairs in the coming century.

Such individuals as Samuel Huntington, Robert Kaplan, and Francis Fukuyama have offered their visions - ranging from a world replete with growing income inequalities and imploding countries to one in danger of interstate and intrastate clashes along civilization lines.

In "The Coming Conflict With China," Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, both former Asia bureau chiefs for Time magazine, construct a realpolitik argument that centers on relations between the US and China.

They argue that an increasingly assertive and nationalistic China will challenge the US as the preeminent power in Asia. Apropos countries will be forced to take sides, and conflict will occur on economic, political, cultural, and possibly even military fronts.

On an ideological level, they try to steer a middle course between scholars and policymakers who favor "engagement" and those who promulgate "containment." Engagement, they argue, is a "naive" policy because it wrongly assumes that better political and economic communications will automatically lead to improved relations and a more democratic China. On the other hand, since China resembles an emerging 18th-century Russia more than it does the powerful 20th-century Soviet Union, a strategy bent on containing China would be anachronistic.

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Despite the authors' attempt at "triangulation," it is clear that they fall somewhere in the vicinity of the containment camp. In the final chapter, for example, they contend that the only way to confront a hostile China is to maintain a vastly superior US military presence in Asia, prevent China from constructing a nuclear weapons stockpile, ensure that Taiwan has a credible defense deterrent, and build up Japan's military.

Moreover, they ironically devote an entire chapter to a fictitious war between the US and China over Taiwan, even though they state that military conflict is unlikely. And they criticize the Clinton administration's decision to meet with high-level Chinese officials as counterproductive.

"The Coming Conflict With China" has already caused quite a stir in the foreign-policy community. In the most recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, for example, Robert Ross challenges Bernstein and Munro's view that an increasingly militarized China can destabilize the Asia-Pacific region. China, Ross contends, "is too weak to challenge the balance of power in Asia and will remain weak well into the 21st century."

Perhaps the most intriguing section of the book is the chapter on the China lobby. Though not as visible as the Taiwan, Jewish, or Cuba lobbies, most journalists, academics, or businessmen who have worked in China or depended on access know the threat of ostracism - and this newspaper is no exception.

It's not so much that the Chinese force individuals to conform to their views; it's more that those who speak favorably of China get privileged access. Current investigations into the fund-raising activities of the Democratic Party highlight how deep the Chinese lobby may have penetrated.

In general, though, Bernstein and Munro promulgate the wrong approach. Overtly threatening China by focusing on military buildup - particularly of its neighbors - would likely be a self-fulfilling prophecy and encourage Chinese hostility. Disagreements will inevitably sprout up over such issues as Chinese human rights violations, unfair trade practices, and the proliferation of weapons. While a forceful approach is critical, China is apt to be more responsive to US concerns if there is a continuous, working relationship.

In the foreseeable future, the most significant threat may not be from a China seeking regional or global hegemony, but from a post-Deng China riven by internal conflict. As recent events in Xinjiang province demonstrate, of particular concern is western China, where a large Muslim population has become restless over repression. China will likely face an even more disconcerted population as it continues to open its doors to international trade.

Indeed, it doesn't take a soothsayer to predict that the 1989 instability in Tiananmen Square was not an anomaly.

* Seth G. Jones is on the Monitor staff.

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