'Conflict with China' -- a wide-awake giant


"The Coming Conflict with China," by Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro. Knopf. 220 pages. $23.

China and the United States are rivals, not just passing through stormy times. China will overtly challenge American political and military resolve over Taiwan. One-party China, like Mussolini's one-party Italy, could evolve into a highly nationalistic, militarist state.

Those are the premises of this dark polemic, which is useful, even important reading, especially this month, the 25th anniversary of President Nixon's visit to Beijing. "The Coming Conflict" is a sobering reminder of how much expectations have soured.

Outsiders have been exposed to several Chinas since the Tiananmen killings in June 1989: a society that embraces private economic development while energetically supressing political dissent. That tantalizes foreign companies by offering potentially the largest consumer market in the world. That undertakes enormous development projects with little regard to environmental costs. That is growing more belligerent, and less cowed by the United States. Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro add to those portraits the image of a China conscientiously working to supplant the U.S. as the dominant power in Asia. That part of their case is persuasive.

Beijing wants the deference that Japan and other states now give Washington. The U.S. earned that deference through military and economic power. China seems intent on earning it the same way. Bernstein (a former Beijing correspondent for Time and now a New York Times book critic) and Munro (who first reported from Beijing for the Toronto Globe and Mail) depict China as ruled by jealous, intensely nationalistic figures who find the United States "a handy natural enemy." If the U.S. represents freedom and rights, their China embodies discipline and control.

You are free to study, to move from the countryside to the cities and to make money - but not to dissent. The U. S. has been unsure how to respond. Bernstein and Munro place some of the blame on former American officials who help businesses tap China as a market. The most visible of these consultants, and in the authors' account the least appealing, is Henry Kissinger, convincingly cast as part of a China lobby that declines to criticize China's human rights record and warns against imposing sanctions (think back to Tiananmen).

Taiwan is the issue that brings the gloomiest forecasts. Bernstein and Munro see the possibility of much more serious clashes than the one in 1996, when China conducted "military exercises" to try to influence Taiwan's presidential election. Washington responded by dispatching a naval task force.

In the future, the "exercises" could take the form of an unannounced blockade, requiring either a far larger response or acquiescence to the slow strangulation of the island. "China intends to be a great global power," the authors write. "And great global powers are not usually patient and accommodating when it comes to the question of control and sovereignty over what they deem to be their national territory."

But some of their arguments are oddly familiar. There are numbing lists of weapons systems and ominous warnings from analysts. They are reminiscent of lists from the Cold War and analysts' warnings about Soviet strength. What's lacking is recognition that China is not assured of steady economic growth, that environmental problems may affect industrial development, that more than a hundred million Chinese still live at subsistence levels.

For China's rulers, those may become even more pressing issues than is Taiwan or the United States.

Robert Ruby is deputy foreign editor at The Sun. He is author of "Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms."

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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