PARIS -- President Clinton's China trip has brought a reversal of alliances. It brings to mind the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of August 1939, which suddenly made Germany and Soviet Russia allies, and set Germany free to attack Poland.
That is an exaggerated and invidious comparison, but the long-term consequences of suddenly declaring China the United States' principal ally in Asia, at the expense of Japan, India and Taiwan, could prove just as significant.
The reasoning that led the Clinton administration to do this remains an enigma. According to awell-informed analysis in the South China Morning Post, the Chinese government had hoped at best to be able to develop with Mr. Clinton the notion of "constructive strategic partnership," formulated at the first Jiang-Clinton summit, but expected no more than behind-the-scenes promises concerning Taiwan.
They had interpreted Washington's recent renewal of the Japanese-American Security Treaty as part of a project to impose American "hegemony" in Asia. Beijing had been unable to obtain reassurance that the treaty did not concern Taiwan. The Chinese expected Mr. Clinton to continue to be evasive on this point.
Instead, they got the full Monty. The "constructive strategic partnership" was affirmed, directed against independent Taiwan -- today a democracy, with less than 2 percent of China's population, but possessing a dynamic economy nearly half as big as China's.
Mr. Clinton, at China's request, and in words dictated by the Chinese, affirmed America's commitment to "the three no's," engaging the United States to support the absorption of Taiwan by China.
The U.S. position continues to be that this should be done peacefully and through negotiation. However, by announcing that the United States will not support Taiwan's independence, or a permanent "two-Chinas" solution, or the continued existence of "one Taiwan-one China," Mr. Clinton effectively abandoned the only Chinese democracy.
This partnership with China is also implicitly directed against India, another democracy. Mr. Clinton and China's President Jiang Zemin issued a joint statement deploring India's recent nuclear weapons tests.
A 'rogue' nuclear power
India developed its nuclear weapons because of its fear of China. It now finds that the United States is the "strategic ally" of the country it considers a threat to its integrity. China was itself for many years considered by the United States to be a "rogue" nuclear power. It helped Pakistan develop nuclear weapons. It is party to the dispute Mr. Clinton joined it in condemning.
America's reversal of alliances has been dramatized by Mr. Clinton's unprecedented decision, on Chinese demand, to avoid visiting Japan on a presidential Asian trip. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin added to the affront to Japan by excluding Tokyo from his own trip to Asia last week.
Thus it has been a considerable week's work for Mr. Clinton and his associates, and it will have continuing repercussions in Asia and on the United States long after Mr. Clinton and his associates have retired. They seem to have received nothing in return. They not only have offered no explanation for their Asian policy reversal, but also they do not even seem to understand the implications of what they have done.
There are petty explanations for their actions. Washington is annoyed with Tokyo's fiscal and trade policy. To warm to China is punishment. But annoyance with Japanese economic policy is an old and boring story.
Mr. Clinton wanted television exposure of a Chinese visit to get the Washington press off its morbid obsession with special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and Monica Lewinsky. He needed dramatic gestures, of a gravity he possibly did not understand.
He is under pressure from business, where chief executive officers are often the victims of intellectual fashion, and for a long time have been dazzled by the prospect of a billion new Chinese consumers (and simultaneously unmoved by the development of prosperous middle class in India, where nearly another billion people live).
It is a fair assumption that no grand design lay behind this reversal of alliances. But as a result, Japan has been given reason to think that its well-being and security are strictly its own responsibility now, which is a development that could have enormous effect on Japanese internal politics. Mr. Clinton has symbolically terminated the Japanese-American partnership which since the 1950s has been the bedrock of East Asian security and world economic stability.
Taiwan has also been instructed that its survival as an independent democracy must now be guaranteed from its own resources -- or through new regional alignments to contain Chinese ambitions.
Russia now finds that as an enlarging NATO advances on it from the West, the United States has declared itself the strategic partner of its old and dynamic rival in the East. As I have said, it was a momentous week's work, which won't soon be forgotten.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 7/07/98