The challenge that the rise of China presents to the United States is more pressing than any other global issue except for the ever-present threat of jihad.  Beijing is rapidly becoming a regional power of the first order, the Asian hegemon that will need to be contained, confronted, or, in some way, appeased.  Its ruling party still calls itself “communist,” but the ethos of the nomenklatura is eminently traditional: nationalist, xenophobic, authoritarian, and self-serving.  The notion of an “international community” is treated in Beijing with studied derision, as a tool of furthering the sacro egoismo that is and has been China’s guiding light in foreign affairs for over two millennia.

Addressing a regional security conference in Singapore last June, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that China’s military buildup—and especially her deployment of hundreds of missiles along the Straits of Taiwan—is a threat to Asian security.  He criticized Beijing for having the world’s third-largest military budget (behind the United States and Russia) and for buying sophisticated weaponry abroad.  “Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment?” Rumsfeld said.  “Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?”  He also questioned China’s internal policies, pointing out that political freedom has not kept pace with economic freedom: “Ultimately, China will need to embrace some form of a more open and representative government if it is to fully [sic] achieve the political and economic benefits to which its people aspire.”

The director of the Asia bureau of China’s foreign ministry, Cui Tiankai, who attended the conference, reacted strongly:

Since the U.S. is spending a lot more money than China is doing on defense, the U.S. should understand that every country has its own security concerns and every country is entitled to spend money necessary for its own defense.

“Do you truly believe that China is under no threat by other countries?” Cui asked.  “Do you truly believe that the U.S. is threatened by the emergence of China?”

The elephant in the room was the future status of Taiwan, a self-governing island that still formally goes by the name of the “Republic of China,” although many of her inhabitants would prefer to sever all links with the mainland and become an independent state.  China says that she will not allow that to happen.  Earlier this year, China reiterated her intention to intervene militarily if Taiwan tries to declare independence.  On this issue, the leadership in Beijing counts on the nationalist sentiment of China’s 1.2 billion people, which transcends ideology.  With the demise of Maoism, Han nationalism is the only ideological cement that binds the nation under Communist Party rule, granting it legitimacy.  Nurtured by the collective memory of invasions and massacres in the late-19th and the first half of the 20th century, it is a potent force.  Taiwan epitomizes the legacy of past shame and humiliation.  She was taken by force by Japan and ruled as a colony for 50 years (1895-1945).  To condone her separation, under whatever name, would be tantamount to accepting the status of a second-class power.  Furthermore, a soft line on Taiwan would have serious implications for the future status of Tibet and—even more significantly—for the restive Muslim-populated Sinkiang-Uigur province in the far west of the country.

The choice facing the United States is difficult but fairly clear.  China is an ancient power, coldly hostile to outsiders, steeped in Realpolitik, and indifferent to the notion that diplomacy is or should be guided by any motive other than self-interest.  If she is to be treated as a rival and potential enemy, it is necessary to halt further American investment in the Chinese economy, to reverse our massive outsourcing effort, and to erect effective trade barriers against the continuing deluge of Chinese-made consumer products in American stores.  It is also necessary to provide Taiwan—and Japan, and South Korea—with top-notch defensive arsenals, including nuclear weapons.  Japan will need to become a regional military power, contrary to her current constitution and to the wishes of several countries in the region that had experienced the fruits of Japanese expansionism in the first half of the 20th century.

The geopolitical equation of containing and confronting China also demands an alliance, informal or otherwise, between the United States and India, which is, in the long term, China’s sole natural rival in Asia.  The forging of a special relationship with Delhi is long overdue, quite apart from our relations with Beijing—India is an incomprehensibly neglected ally in the “War on Terror”—but no such relationship can be established as long as Pakistan continues to be perceived by the decisionmaking community in Washington as an essential ally.  The regime of General Musharraf is unreliable.  It is guilty of nuclear proliferation; its military establishment is hedging its bets between Washington and Muslim extremists; and its entire ethos remains steeped in the ideology of jihad.

If the Bush administration is not willing to apply these measures, the alternative is to accept the rise of China as a first-order power, and to do so with the best possible grace.  A reigning power is naturally disinclined to look on benignly as another rises, but the middle road would be based on the notion that a conflict between America and China is not inevitable.  The relationship will need to be managed skillfully—with more reciprocity in the field of trade and exchange rates—but its essential ingredient will be to accept that Taiwan is part of China, that she will eventually be reintegrated (preferably with all kinds of safeguards and special-status provisions), and that it is in the American interest to facilitate peaceful reunification.

The cue was provided by two Taiwanese opposition leaders, Lien Chan and James Soong Chu-yu, who visited Beijing in May.  The People’s Daily subsequently praised the Kuomintang (KMT)—the pro-unification party of the late Chiang Kai-shek—for its efforts to develop “trust and confidence” with the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC).  A sober assessment was provided by the independent South China Morning Post, which praised Mr. Chen as Taiwan’s Richard Nixon:

Both sides recognize that unification, if it were to happen, would only take place in the very distant future.  What needs doing now is to create conditions under which peace can be perpetuated, perhaps for as long as two generations.  At the end of that period, who knows what the world will be like?  If the leaders of this generation have the wisdom to agree on peace for a few decades, future leaders will hopefully [sic] have the wisdom to prolong or even perpetuate that peace.

Hope should not prevail over experience, but China is in no hurry.  She is the fastest growing among the world’s major economies, and, on a per capita basis, her growth over the past decade was among the highest in the world.  She has been successfully transformed from a poor agricultural economy into a global manufacturing base.  The Communist Party has managed to preserve its monopoly on political power, but its rule fits in with the country’s authoritarian tradition, which harks back to the first emperor.  The result is a variety of authoritarian capitalism—successfully tested decades ago in Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore—under which a selective degree of economic freedom and private-property rights is combined with unyielding control over political life by the ruling establishment.  The CPC—devoid of Marxist ideological zeal or any serious attempt to indoctrinate “the masses”—provides conditions for a liberal capitalist economy but does not allow its monopoly of power to be challenged.  Its bottom-up approach to economic reform proved to be vastly more successful than the Soviet Union’s top-down shake-up of perestroika.  The crisis of Tiananmen Square proved temporary; 16 years later, China’s nouveau riche businessmen calmly comment that “democracy should not get in the way of making money.”  The tension between modernizing reformists and the Maoist old guard that characterized Deng’s early years in power is gone.

Secretary Rumsfeld’s comment that political freedom has not kept pace with increasing economic freedom in China is correct, but it is unlikely to find much resonance in the Middle Kingdom.  Harnessing market-based development to one-party control worked very well in Spain under Franco, in Chile under Pinochet, in South Korea during many of her boom years, and—perhaps most pertinently—in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek and his successors.  By the early 1960’s, Chiang’s KMT had ceased to be a Leninist party, just as the Chinese Communist Party is no longer “Marxist-Leninist.”  “Political freedom” is secondary to the imperatives of stability, prosperity, and continuity.

Chiang’s KMT did not conceive of itself as representing the interest of any particular class and sought to represent the nation as a whole, just as the CPC today neglects the “proletariat” while wooing the capitalists into its ranks.  Both realize that a vibrant private sector is the key to prosperity.  If the Communist Party of China continues to transform itself into a Red Kuomintang, a guided democracy will eventually emerge, social disparities will become less glaring, and economic growth will continue on a stable footing.  In that case, a peaceful reunification of the mainland and Taiwan will be only a matter of time.

Given China’s phenomenal growth, what will be her role in the world in the future?  By 2025, she will be a great power of the first order.  Her population will reach 1.5 billion, her GDP will be in the seven-trillion-dollar range—on par with that of the United States or the European Union a decade ago—and she will have access to the most advanced technologies.  In foreign affairs, her leaders will continue to attach little importance to international organizations and alliances, trusting China’s wealth and power as a means of achieving diplomatic objectives and treating a strong defense as an outgrowth of a strong economy.

China’s wealth and power will make her the dominant power in Asia, and the countries of the region will be hard pressed to negotiate the terms and conditions of an acceptable relationship with Beijing that would fall short of China’s outright hegemony.  The country’s growing energy needs, impossible to satisfy from her limited domestic resources, will turn her into a player of growing importance on the international stage.  Her leaders see access to the reserves of oil and natural gas in Central Asia as a cornerstone of their economic policy for the next two decades.  They also may harbor long-term geopolitical designs in Siberia, which is underpopulated and rich in energy and minerals.  If, on the other hand, China opts for a cooperative relationship with Russia, their partnership could reshape the Asian architecture and turn China into a distribution hub for oil and gas exports to South Korea and Japan, two of the largest energy-importing states in the world.  This, in turn, might result in Japan’s strategic realignment.  Ikuro Sugawara, an analyst with the Japan National Oil Corporation, warns that “Japan, which is an integral part of the Asian market and is as dependent as its neighbors on the Middle East for oil, will not be able to follow the US line as closely as it has in the past.”

None of these long-term objectives and policies likely to be pursued by Beijing are necessarily detrimental to the interests of the United States, provided that China is content with the status of a regional Asian power.  Her stake in the Panama Canal may provide a handy litmus test.  If she cooperates, the underlying premise of Rumsfeld’s address—that any change of the status quo in Asia is detrimental to American interests—may need to be reexamined.

As China continues to transform herself into a global economic power, her interests, security concerns, and aspirations will be asserted with ever-greater self-confidence.  The task of U.S. policy in East Asia should be to consider whether, and to what extent, those aspirations are compatible with American interests.  Contemplating the possibility of a consensual, carefully managed, and internationally condoned reunification of China with Taiwan would be a constructive first step.