Chapter 3: Does China Pose a Threat to the United States?

Chapter 3 Preface


In May 1999, Congress released a report detailing evidence that China had spied on the United States for twenty years. The Cox report, named after Republican Christopher Cox who headed the House committee that released it, claims that Chinese agents stole information about every nuclear weapon currently deployed by the United States and that China could use this information to improve their own nuclear capabilities. Many of the thefts occurred at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, but the report also states that U.S. companies such as Hughes Electronics Corporation may have inadvertently given away some U.S. secrets when they launched satellites aboard Chinese rockets.

Not surprisingly, the nuclear espionage scandal outraged many Americans. Critics of U.S. foreign policy cited the incident as proof that China is seeking to gain a military advantage over the United States. Some politicians, such as House Republican Tom DeLay, also used the incident to question “whether the president and vice president deliberately ignored the reality of Chinese spying and theft because they had ulterior economic and political motives,” referring to illegal campaign contributions the Democratic party received from Chinese donors in the 1996 presidential race.

However, some argue that the Cox report provides little evidence for its broad claims of espionage. Stephen L. Schwartz of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists asks, “If China has been diligently swiping our technological secrets for the past 20 years . . . why is it still using military hardware it designed in the 1960s and 1970s?” Others contend that China should not be demonized because of the spy scandal; Michael Klare, professor of peace and world studies at Hampshire College, maintains that “China, like every other country in the world, spies. . . . There is nothing unusually sinister about this.”

The Los Alamos spy scandal is just one incident inciting debate over China. The authors in the following chapter consider China’s strategic goals and its military capabilities as they consider whether China poses a threat to U.S. interests around the globe.

Conflict Between the United States and China May Be Imminent

In the following viewpoint, Frank J. Gaffney Jr. argues that the Chinese government may have long-term plans that are harmful to the United States and its vital interests. The author claims that, among other things, the People’s Republic of China is building up its armed forces, spying on the United States, and establishing relations with American allies and with anti-U.S. countries such as Iraq. Gaffney believes that to prevent future conflict with China, the United States should act now to subvert the Chinese Communist regime while also building up U.S. defensive capabilities in Asia. Gaffney is president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. What U.S. vulnerabilities does the author claim China is attempting to exploit through “asymmetric” means?

2. Why is it especially difficult to counter Chinese espionage, in Gaffney’s view?

3. What policies of the Clinton-Gore administration does Gaffney believe may have been affected by illegal Chinese campaign contributions?

The single-most important strategic question of the coming decade is likely to be: Is Communist China determined to harm the United States or its vital interests? The second-most important question is: If so, can conflict between our nations be avoided on terms that are consistent with the American people’s security and liberties?

Before examining these important issues, consider this observation about forecasts: There are few inevitabilities in the course of human conduct. Decisions taken—or not taken—at various points along the road can and do shape history. In hindsight, events may appear to be inevitable. But they rarely are.

The trouble is that, when living through a transitional period, we often are unaware of the turning points, of the choices being made. For example, take the period that led up to World War II.

Today we can clearly see evidence that the Nazis and Japanese were pursuing courses that would bring them into conflict with the United States and other Western democracies. We can also see the missed opportunities during the 1930s when different policies on the part of this country, Britain and France might have spared the world the conflagration that followed.

Yet at the time, the democracies were lulled into inaction by the seductive appeal of those who claimed that engaging with the thugs running Germany and Japan on their terms— a practice that came to be known as “appeasement”— would spare the West the tragic costs of another conflict.

This approach was tried again and again in the face of what proved to be insatiable demands by members of the fascist Axis. Feeding the tiger only made it come back for more. Despite the fact that Great Britain and Nazi Germany were each other’s largest trading partners, the war came when it suited Hitler.

What Beijing Wants
Unfortunately, I believe there is increasing evidence that a new conflict with an authoritarian regime is in prospect, this time with Communist China. As in the 1930s, this evi- dence is somewhat obscured by other information—what intelligence experts call “noise.” Some of it is genuine. Some of it is misinformation.

The difficulty of understanding which is greatly compounded by the efforts of those, like their counterparts of 60 years ago, who tell us that engagement will prevent conflict, that expanding trade and accommodation of China’s demands will ensure that peaceful relations between our two countries are preserved.

In fact, trade and accommodation will not necessarily prevent conflict with the People’s Republic of China any more than it caused Hitler to refrain from attacking Britain’s allies and, in due course, England herself. China is, after all, not the United States’ “strategic partner.”

As in the 1930s, we ignore evidence of a coming struggle with China at our peril. If anything will make that conflict inevitable, it will be our failure to address what the PRC is up to and the strategic implications of that behavior and policies that guide it for our vital interests and those of our allies in Asia.

Ominous Trends
Consider the following illustrative list of China’s ominous activities. Motivation and likely repercussions of these activities must be separate from the “noise” and addressed effectively.

The PRC’s ambitious military modernization program: The Communist Chinese are engaged in what Mao might have called a “Great Leap Forward” in the lethality and power projection capabilities of their armed forces. The purpose of this effort is clear to those guiding the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army: to neutralize (preferably without a war) and, if necessary, defeat what the...

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Conflict Between the United States and China Can Be Averted

Henry Kissinger served as national security advisor and secretary of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and also as a consultant to presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. In the following viewpoint he warns that key events in 1999—such as the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by U.S. forces during the Kosovo conflict in May, as well as the release of the Cox report have contributed to rising tensions between the United States and China. Kissinger maintains that U.S. hostility toward China is unwarranted and rejects claims that China’s military build-up and economic prosperity threaten the United States or democratic Taiwan. Kissinger calls on leaders in both nations to halt the rush toward confrontation.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. What three propositions constitute the “case against China,” in Kissinger’s view?

2. In the author’s opinion, how is China’s strategic situation more problematic than the Soviet Union’s was?

President Clinton meets with his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, at an international forum in New Zealand [in September 1999] amid the greatest strain in Sino-American relations since diplomatic contact was re-established in 1971.

Mounting Tensions Could Lead to Disaster
Many in Washington perceive Beijing’s reaction to the American attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade as deliberate fostering of anti-American sentiments, and the Chinese military build-up and human rights practices as challenges to basic American interests and values. The view from Beijing is that the bombing of its Belgrade embassy was deliberate and that denial of World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, human rights accusations and charges of espionage are symptoms of America’s unwillingness to allow China to play a role on the world stage.

In this atmosphere, Taiwan’s sudden and unilateral challenge to the existing political understandings in the Taiwan Strait—at a time when a senior Beijing representative was preparing to visit Taipei for the first time—is interpreted in Beijing as the culmination of an American plot to divide China. [On July 9, 1999, Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui called for “special state-to-state relations” between China and Taiwan, challenging the Chinese government’s position that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China.] Chinese warnings of a possible military response have taken on a severity reminiscent of the prelude to the Chinese intervention in the Korean War in 1950. In turn, many in Washington consider these Chinese expressions of concern as pretexts for executing long-held designs. Amid such mutual incomprehension, conflict, even military conflict, could suddenly erupt.

Three high-level visits—of Jiang Zemin to Washington [in November 1997], of Clinton to China [in June 1998] and of Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Washington [in April 1999]—have accomplished little more than to assuage these trends. In each, atmospherics took precedence over substance, and in the Zhu visit American domestic politics blocked the conclusion of the WTO agreement that Zhu had been given reason to expect.

Some are fatalistic about this drift toward confrontation. Others compare the emergence of China to the rise of Germany before World War I, the implication being that, since a showdown is foreordained, better now, when China is still relatively weak. They forget that, in the eyes of history, the sin of the statesmen of that period was their failure to arrest the catastrophe that nearly destroyed European civilization.

A Sino-American conflict would be similarly avoidable and damaging to both sides. Both sides need a respite from the febrile mood of the moment. The atmosphere for this is not favorable in either country. Anti-American nationalism seems to be gaining momentum in Beijing. In America, a growing consensus in which China replaces the Soviet Union as our main enemy stultifies a necessary debate. Doubters of the dominant trend are accused of appeasement or of acting for their own economic benefit—a charge to which I have been subjected because I am chairman of an international consulting company. Anybody believing this charge should stop reading here.

No single component of American foreign policy can be an end in itself. We have security, political and economic interests and commitments in Asia that we will not sacrifice to our interest in constructive relations with China, however important we judge these to be. But the prospects of world peace, stability and progress will be jeopardized if the current unnecessary rush toward confrontation is not reversed by both sides.

The Case Against China
The case against China boils down to three propositions:

• That China, like the Soviet Union, is ideologically bent on regional, if not world, domination. Coexistence being impossible, we must maintain pressures on this last major totalitarian state until it transforms itself into a peaceful and cooperative democratic society.

• That China’s military build-up coupled with the growth of its economy inevitably challenges the U.S. position in Asia and should be stifled before it takes on unmanageable proportions.

• That a military showdown over Taiwan is sufficiently probable that we must take all measures in defense of Taiwan, even if these measures make such a conflict inevitable.

But is China really comparable to the Soviet threat to the United States?

Soviet ideology claimed universal applicability, and Soviet leaders as late at the ’70s proclaimed the goal of the worldwide triumph of communism. Moscow avowed its...

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China Does Not Pose a Military Threat to the United States

In the following viewpoint, Bates Gill and Michael O’Hanlon contend that, despite some observers’ concerns about a possible conflict between the two nations, there is no reason to think that China could challenge the United States militarily. The authors note that China has the world’s largest army, in terms of raw troop numbers—but point out that the United States far surpasses China in terms of military technology and equipment. China is completely unequipped to mount an effective attack on the United States, they maintain, and it is very unlikely that China’s army could invade and hold Taiwan. Gill and O’Hanlon are senior scholars in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution.

As you...

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China Could Pose a Military Threat to the United States

Mark Helprin is the author of Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, a contributing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. In the following viewpoint, he maintains that China is on its way to becoming a military superpower. He notes that China is currently upgrading its nuclear capabilities, and that the Chinese economy is soaring. Helprin predicts that by about 2015 China will have the ability to pour its economic strength into revitalizing its conventional military. Once this happens, he warns, China will probably be able to dominate the Asian mainland and become a serious rival to the United States.


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Chapter 3 Periodical Bibliography


The following articles have been selected to supplement the diverse views presented in this chapter. Addresses are provided for periodicals not indexed in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, the Alternative Press Index, the Social Sciences Index, or the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books.

Elliott Abrams and Michael Ledeen. “American Power—for What?” Commentary, January 2000.

Bates Gill and Michael O’Hanlon. “China’s Hollow Military,” National Interest, Summer 1999. Available from P.O. Box 622, Shrub Oak, NY 10588-0622.

Michael Hirsh and Melinda Liu. “A Goose Step into the Future: China’s 50th Anniversary,” Newsweek, October 11, 1999.

David M. Lampton. “China,” Foreign Policy, Spring 1998.

James Lilley and Carl Ford. “China’s Military: A Second Look,” National Interest, Fall 1999.

Richard Lowry. “Compromised: The Cox Report,” National Review, June 14, 1999.

Johanna McGeary. “The Next Cold War?” Time, June 7, 1999.

Ross H. Munro. “Taiwan: What China Really Wants,” National Review, October 11, 1999.

Jim Risen. “New Chinese Missiles Seen as Threat to U.S.,” New York Times, September 10, 1999.

Stephen L. Schwartz. “China’s Nukes: A Phantom Menace,” New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer 1999.

Warren P. Strobel. “America’s Stolen Thunder: The Cox Report,” U.S. News & World Report, June 7, 1999.

Patrick E. Tyler. “Who’s Afraid of China?” New York Times Magazine, August 1, 1999.

Caspar W. Weinberger. “Panama, the Canal, and China,” Forbes, October 4, 1999.