International News Electronic Telegraph
Tuesday 11 February 1997
Issue 627

America and China edge closer to a Cold War in the East
By Christopher Lockwood, Diplomatic Editor

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STEP by step, America is edging towards a Cold War with China, one that may condition the first half of the 21st century just as the Cold War with Russia has shaped the past 50 years.

America's new Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, sets off on a nine-nation tour this week, a handy index to where the second Clinton administration's priorities lie. As well as routine visits to the European allies, and one to Moscow before next month's summit, Mrs Albright is making a highly-unconventional detour to east Asia, ending up in Beijing.

The visit reflects an increasingly-held belief that the problem of deteriorating US-China relations, and their consequence for security in the east Asia region, is rapidly becoming the most pressing that Mrs Albright faces. The potential for misunderstanding between America and China is vast, and growing. Since the end of the US-Russia Cold War and the virtual collapse of Russia as a serious military threat, China is no longer pinned down by the Russians along its northern and eastern marches. This frees China to become more assertive abroad.

At the same time, the US-Japan alliance, once aimed at Russia, now looks increasingly directed against China. America maintains 100,000 troops in east Asia, about the same number as in Europe, and their presence fuels atavistic Chinese fears of encirclement. And as the Pacific booms, dominating it becomes the globe's greatest prize.

Since 1989, China's annual military spending has tripled. It has the declared ambition to build a blue-water navy, projecting naval power out into the South China Sea lanes through which a quarter of the world's commerce passes, and the semi-declared objective of dominating Asia militarily by 2030. It is already, on some measures, the second largest economy, outstripping Japan last year.

This new assertive China is already throwing its weight around. In 1995, China seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines, menaced Taiwan with rocket tests, and unilaterally expanded its territorial sea borders, expanding the sea areas under its jurisdiction by a factor of 10, to 1.5 million square miles.

America's show of force in March, when it sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to Taiwan during the rocket crisis, may have prevented a worse conflict. But it will have greatly added to Chinese paranoia. Charles Freeman, a senior American diplomat, tells of a private meeting last year with Chinese military officials in which they asserted that America would not risk the destruction of Los Angeles (by Chinese missiles, presumably) to defend Taipei. It was a ludicrous threat, but an alarming guide to the new mentality.

If China is becoming steadily more assertive, so too is America. Trade used to constitute one important difference between the US-Russia and the US-China conflict model. With its 1.2 billion consumers, China was the market no American business dared stay out of. Though this delusion led to the loss of many hundreds of millions of dollars of investment money, until last year, it conditioned American official thinking. It led, in 1994, to the decoupling of China's Most Favoured Nation trading status from any consideration of its human rights record.

But that argument, too, is being stood on its head. China now runs the largest trade surplus with America of any country, eclipsing even Japan. So protectionist politicians and businessmen now make common cause with the human rights and environmental lobbies, pushing for a much tougher China policy. No countervailing force has emerged.

That tougher line goes down well. "President Clinton's firm stand last March proved very popular for him," said Gerald Segal, senior Asia analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "The first policy, that of comprehensive engagement with China, had not proved very successful. Taiwan was brilliant for the president's reputation, and he has no incentive to relax it."

America's China policy appears to have mutated away from straightforward engagement - working to bring China into the community of nations - towards something that has more than a smack of Cold War-style containment about it.

The pundits call this "conditional engagement", or even "constrainment", the idea that the West should knit China into the civilised world, but only according to strict rules. It is precisely being dictated to in this way that China most hates.

2 December 1996: China stands by nuclear exports
21 November 1996: China and US try to build trust
18 November 1996: China attacks American foreign policy
26 April 1996: Russia and China form partnership to counter West

Next report: 'Black Widow' denies killing companions

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