November 30, 1998
by Constantine C. Menges
This bilateral summit is between President Clinton and the head of a nuclear-armed Communist dictatorship, that while very different from the former Soviet Union, also shares with it a number of characteristics: rule by a Communist Party determined to maintain its monopoly on power while also seeking economic growth from closer relations with the free world; intense repression of political dissent and religious expression; a determination to dominate neighboring countries and remove the influence of the United States from its region; a program of qualitative improvement in its military forces combined with unilateral actions to seize disputed territory from weak neighboring states; and, an emerging geopolitical doctrine defining the United States as the principal adversary.
Also, as with the Soviet Union, mainland China is perceived by many in the United States, and in the West, as a world power and Communist regime that will evolve in a positive direction internationally and internally provided it meets understanding and flexibility rather than resistance from the United States. In this view, it is best to focus only on expanding economic relations and trade with China (currently, it sends 35% of its exports to the US and is earning a $40 billion surplus this year while 2% of US exports are sold to China), and ignore or downplay its forcible seizure of disputed territories and claims to all of the South China Sea, as well as its sending weapons of mass destruction to Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and other states. Further, it is assumed by those seeing the PRC in this light that when the US acquiesces in its obtaining control of Taiwan, a democracy with 21 million people (with a GNP of $280 billion and $90 billion in hard currency reserves), the result will be a "satisfied" and more cooperative Communist China.
There are nine lessons from the Cold War that can help to illuminate the opportunities and challenges of the US-China relationship.
1. The people are not the regime. There was a clear understanding in the West that most of the people under Communist rule felt oppressed and wanted freedom from the coercion of the state. For that reason, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and democracy assistance programs had such an important role, as should an expanded Radio Free Asia and programs to aid pro-freedom Chinese.
2. Engagement and deterrence are complementary. The US maintained the military forces and alliance coalitions that successfully deterred open nuclear or conventional attack by the Soviet Union. The strength and stability of this deterrence in turn provided the setting for efforts to expand peaceful relationships with the people under communist rule, as well as for reciprocal trade and economic contacts.
3. Ambiguity, weakness, and self-deception by the West lead to increased Communist aggressiveness. The failure of the US to assure the success of the 1961 operation against Castro, and acquiescence to other hostile Soviet actions culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the 1970s, the failure to take effective counteractions against the establishment of eleven new pro-Soviet regimes led Moscow to judge that it could invade Afghanistan and produced a crisis.
4. The contrast between the abandonment of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and the support for West Berlin in the Cold War is relevant to US policy about Taiwan. At Munich in 1938, the leading Western democracy abandoned a small democratic state to an aggressive regime which made false promises, used the event to dissolve the coalition of regional states that had been Western allies, and concluded that its further aggression would not be opposed. In the Cold War, West Berlin, surrounded by Communist Germany, was not abandoned. If the US abandons democratic Taiwan to rule by Communist China, whatever paper promises the PRC makes (as it did to Tibet in 1951) the effect will be to endanger all US alliance relationships in the region and to encourage PRC hardliners to believe they would be unopposed in the use of coercion against Japan and other powers. This would sharply increase the risk of conflict in the next years.
5. Economic liberalization and growth may, but does not necessarily, lead to political liberalization. A number of communist countries, including Hungary, Poland, the former Yugoslavia, as well as the PRC, experienced decades of significant economic liberalization, while the political dictatorship continued. The unraveling of communist rule in Eastern Europe beginning in 1989 was not the result of intrinsic forces created by economic liberalization, but rather reflected the judgment by large parts of the population that they could seek greater freedom without risking massive repression by the Gorbachev-led Soviet Union.
6. The political, economic, and international success of the major democracies acted to provide the example and inspiration for the peoples of Eastern Europe to make efforts for greater freedom. The Soviet interventions of 1956 and 1968 made it evident that NATO would not use military means to assist those seeking freedom from communist rule. As a result, there was an understanding that political liberalization would have to come through the efforts of the citizens in each country. Just as democratic West Germany was an example for the people of East Germany, so too democratic, prosperous Taiwan is a powerful source of inspiration for those on mainland China who seek freedom.
7. Communist regimes use their political power to keep wages low and use forced labor to produce export products that yield hard currency which strengthens the regime and its military forces. During the detente of the 1970s, the Soviet Union used a significant part of its hard currency earnings gained through trade and Western investment to buy critical technology for a vast military buildup that increased the number of its deployed strategic nuclear warheads, from about 2,000 to 9,000 by the end of that decade.
8. Business interests trading with communist regimes, seek to maximize their sales and returns -- they will sell any dual use or military technology unless prohibited by their governments. It is up to the US and allied governments to control the export of sensitive technology to the PRC that could increase its military potential, especially in the domain of strategic nuclear forces.
9. Despite the longevity and apparent permanence of communist regimes, they can collapse quickly when their international aggression fails and a significant number of their citizens decide to seek freedom and democracy. During the 1980s, no new pro-Soviet regimes were established in the world, one in Grenada was succeeded by a democracy, foreign communist troops were forced by armed resistance movements to withdraw from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola. As the new Soviet leadership became less aggressive internationally and sought some degree of political opening domestically, the peoples of Eastern Europe liberated themselves and set the stage for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It may take years or decades, but the people of the PRC could do the same. A democratic China would be a peaceful participant in international relations and might then be unified with Taiwan by mutual agreement.
As with the Soviet Union, the relationship with Communist China need not be one of unconditional engagement or of isolation, rather it should combine deterrence with principled and realistic engagement, as proposed by Reps. Christopher Cox and his colleagues in their recent legislation that seeks to encourage a "free, post-Communist China."
This op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Times on November 30, 1998
Dr. Constantine Menges, a scholar, author, and university professor, was a Hudson Institute senior fellow until July, 2004.
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