What Clinton's Big Yes to China Means

President Jiang Zemin made an offer President Clinton couldn't refuse: Recognize China as the second superpower and we'll help bring peace and prosperity to the world. Clinton's response was a big yes -- sort of. Foreign policy experts may argue the point, but U.S. financial markets had no such doubts. China's clout in bailing out the Hong Kong market was enough to calm the gyrating markets in New York. Not surprisingly, the New York business community turned out to welcome Jiang Zemin in force. But not since Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower split over whether the U.S. should give priority attention to East Asia or Europe during World War II have the ramifications of a U.S. realignment loomed so large. MacArthur argued for East Asia which he saw as the rising global force; Eisenhower argued for Europe where most Americans' ancestors came from.The MacArthur-Eisenhower argument ended in a draw. From Pearl Harbor on, the U.S. has fought, spent and worried almost equally on Europe and East Asia. Then in January 1991 America achieved a crushing victory over Iraq with Soviet support and Chinese acquiescence. Many Americans became giddy with the vision that the U.S. would never again have to fight, spend or worry about both regions the way it had for the past six decades. Suddenly the idea that there could be peace on earth in our time seemed about to become reality.But the war in Bosnia burst the bubble of optimism and anxieties over Europe have been spreading ever since. Russia and Southeast Europe suffer from conflict and stagnation. Eastern Europe is doing better -- but only somewhat. The biggest worry is over Western Europe and whether the new "euro" unified currency will come into being on schedule or falter. The euro's father and bulwark is German Chancellor Helmut Kohl whose 15 year long tenure is now rumored to be coming to an end. Should he leave office in the near future, the economic energy the euro was supposed to generate could vanish.The troubles in eastern, southeastern and western Europe are dwarfed by the conflicts now boiling the Middle East, a region extending from Greece to western India. These conflicts could further unsettle Europe, a region much more closely tied into the European "theater of operations" than to the East Asian.Until recently, the one region that seemed immune from trouble was East and Southeast Asia. Suddenly, peace fell apart in Cambodia; North Korea became more truculent, and the tsunami of currency and stock market collapses washed over Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. But Hong Kong stopped the wave. Now it looks as if the region is not only surviving the storms but staging a come-back. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says that "over a very long period" the East Asian economies will maintain their "above average growth rates."The U.S. is much more dependent on East Asian economies than many realize. We need Japanese technology, Chinese industrial goods and both of them buying U.S. Treasury bonds. And they need our markets, the world's biggest. But the U.S. also needs China's support to navigate the increasingly stormy waters of western Eurasia. These two factors explain why Clinton's answer to Jiang Zemin was a big yes. But in democracies governments can win out in policy struggles even while the losers often keep on fighting. There were and still are big fights over China policy inside the Beltway, which is why Clinton may have qualified the big yes with a sort of. A lot of right-of-center critics of China policy still favor the idea of America as the world's solo superpower. A lot of left-of-center critics want policy priority given to the world "from Vladivostok to San Francisco," as Gorbachev once put it, where democracy and liberal capitalism work best.If the troubles in Europe and the Middle East quiet down, the issue of China's superpower status will become moot. This won't displease the Chinese who -- until Jiang's trip -- had propagated the view of a "multipolar" and "pluralistic" world.But the auguries for universal peace right now are not that good. The war- hardened Chinese leaders may well sense that they will do better as a second superpower next to the first one, America. It seems as if President Clinton agrees.Schurmann is professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was former head of the Center for Chinese Studies, the author of The Organization and Ideology of Communist China and co-editor of The China Reader, among other books.


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