American Enterprise Online
April 10, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

It has been five years since a Chinese warplane quite literally intercepted a US Navy surveillance plane flying in international airspace above the South China Sea. The mid-air mugging crippled the US plane and forced it to make an emergency landing on Hainan island, where the crew was held for almost two weeks. In fact, this week marks the anniversary of their release.  

Gazing back through the smoke and soot of 9/11, through the sandstorms and snowstorms of Afghanistan, through the agonies of victory in Iraq and the fragments of a global war waged largely in the shadows, the Hainan incident seems like something out of another century, another time. And in a sense, it is. For the United States, September 11 was a pivot-point moment that shifted the country’s focus and shuffled its priorities. Still, Hainan offers lessons about a challenge that has not gone away. 

China’s hybrid system of communism and capitalism, free markets and unfree peoples, free trade and slave labor, effectively disqualifies it from being a friend of the US. But the two nations share far too many interests to consign the PRC to America’s enemies list. 

I. Saving face may save lives.

On the far side of this in-between world where China resides, it pays to recall that it took the Chinese military almost two weeks to release its American “guests”—and their release came only after the US issued a tortuous statement that Beijing accepted as an apology and Washington refused to call an apology.  

This underscores how important face-saving diplomacy is to Beijing—and even to US interests. It’s not hard to imagine future incidents when the most prudent course—and the one that promotes US interests—will require Washington to resist the temptation to humiliate the Chinese government.     

II. Peace through strength works.

Speaking of temptation, we should take Churchill’s advice and avoid offering the PRC “temptations to a trial of strength.” That means remaining strong enough to deter Beijing’s urges to settle old scores in Taiwan or to make new claims beyond its borders. What Churchill said of the USSR remains true about the PRC: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength.” 

Of course, there is a tipping point with deterrent strength. Wielding or brandishing too much of it could alarm Beijing and trigger the sort of costly arms race that characterized so much of the Cold War. Still, there are worse things than a new cold war—namely, a hot war on the Asian mainland or the Pacific atolls. 

III. Alliances work.

Churchill recognized that Europe would serve as a central front in the Cold War with Moscow, which is why he was such a strong advocate of European unity and transatlantic alliance. If there is to be a Cold War II, then the Asia-Pacific region will be its main stage.  

The good news in this regard is that some of America’s strongest friendships are found in this vast region: The US and Japan are growing ever closer, even as Tokyo begins to flex its own military muscle. Likewise, the US-Australia alliance is perhaps stronger today than ever, as the two nations sail the not-so-peaceful waters of the Pacific and beyond. Cold War-era security agreements with Thailand have evolved to face the tests of the 21st century. With their eyes on China, the American and Indian democracies are finally linking arms, even as the US and Pakistan work together on a range of security issues. With both India and Pakistan now in the US orbit, Washington has turned something of a geo-strategic double-play, at least in relation to Beijing.  

Of course, China is not standing still. Beijing is starting to field a power-projecting navy, engaging in cyber-espionage and training for cyber-warfare, and developing space assets to counter America’s satellite-dependent military. Plus, as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations has reported, a PRC defector recently revealed that China’s leadership considers the United States to be its “main enemy.” 

As an outgrowth of that view, the PRC is building its own security partnerships (though one wonders if they will be as lasting and durable as America’s in the Asia-Pacific region). In 2005, China and Russia teamed up for large-scale war games in Russia’s Far East, involving some 10,000 men. They plan a reprise in 2007. Their leaders have met five times in the past 12 months, and the two Asian powers have been less than helpful in Iraq and Iran. Plus, Moscow and Beijing have worked hard to push the US out of Central Asia, where US forces took up residence after 9/11.  

The PRC is quietly using trade and aid to gain diplomatic leverage and, some worry, to lay the groundwork for a time when it will be able to checkmate or at least delay US countermoves in and around Taiwan. Many of the countries that recognize Taiwan are found in the Western Hemisphere, and Beijing is whittling away at that list. As a Pentagon report concluded last year, Beijing has “intensified its competition with Taiwan in the developing world for diplomatic recognition. This effort has focused on eroding Taiwan’s diplomatic support among the 26 remaining countries that recognize Taipei. Simultaneously, using diplomatic and commercial levers, China has increased pressure on other states to limit their relationships with and to restrain Taiwan.” 

IV. Put away the chess board.

But the Cold War model can only guide us so far. If China does in fact reside in a netherworld between friend and foe, there are times when it brushes up against the borderlands of friendship.  

For instance, China’s economy depends on American consumers—and American consumers depend on China’s economy. This was never the case with the Soviet Union. Indeed, the lack of such non-political, non-official linkages concerned leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain (and on both sides of America’s political spectrum), for it is far easier to go to war with a place and a people who are strangers. 

Unlike the Soviet Union in its ascendance or at its zenith, China is liberalizing (albeit at glacial speed). Indeed, China is a nation eager to be part of the world’s interlocking system of trade. Along with the US, Japan and the EU, China is already one of the main pistons of the global economy. At some $290 billion each year, trade between China and the US is knitting the countries together in important and often helpful ways. Hence, we cannot isolate China anymore than we can isolate the ocean that at once separates and bridges us.  

At the very least, we can say that these vast trade linkages open doors that never existed between the US and the USSR. Of course, these linkages also present new challenges: A test of wills with the USSR like the one with the PRC in Hainan might have scuttled a summit or killed a treaty. It wouldn’t have threatened billions in US investment or millions of US consumers.   

And here’s where the Cold War roadmap ends. The Cold War was like a chess game between Moscow and Washington. There were two sides with two very different visions for the world, allowing and sometimes even requiring a one-dimensional approach. But the US-PRC relationship is more like a game of Jenga—a contest played in multi-dimensions and demanding ambidexterity. There are no longer two evenly matched sides, but rather networks of asymmetrical pieces that connect and disconnect and reconnect as needed.  

The US is adapting to this new world—and so is China.