July 16, 2002

July 16, 2002 | Commentary on Asia

ED071602:  Changing America's China Policy

Washington wonks say the policy impact of any U.S. government report is inversely proportional to its length, and this is especially so for tomes produced in response to tiresome mandates by the U.S. Congress. But two hefty American government reports on China released in recent days may well disprove the rule. Not because the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush will necessarily heed them, but because they put on record the profound anxieties about China's military modernization that pervade Congress, the U.S. Department of Defense and much of the American public.

The two reports are the 209-page "Annual Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Security Review Commission" and the Pentagon's 56-page "Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China." Despite their mass, the Bush administration is playing down their significance. "A dime a dozen," one U.S. official sniffed to Reuters. Last week I asked another official about the congressional commission's magnum opus. He speculated that "not a single person in the administration has the time to read it, and therefore not a single recommendation will be implemented."

The reason for the administration's unhappiness with them is clear. Reading through these hefty papers myself, I am struck by how completely they turn Washington's existing China policy on its head.

The Pentagon's document is the definitive U.S. government assessment of the threat posed by China's military build-up. It states flatly that "the PRC's ambitious military modernization casts a cloud over its declared preference for resolving differences with Taiwan through peaceful means." This subtle observation is the first time that a formal U.S. government report has questioned China's "fundamental policy to strive for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question" -- a "fundamental policy" that is at the center of the three  "joint communiqués" between Washington and Beijing and is the key to America's China policy. Perhaps the Pentagon paper won't ultimately have a significant impact on future policy, but it certainly helps to explain the Bush administration's deepening commitment to providing advanced defense systems to Taiwan.

The report reflects with crystalline clarity how the Defense Department views China's military establishment (which it sees as the largest in the world after the U.S.) as the major potential threat to American interests, not just in the Taiwan Strait, but in the entire Asia-Pacific region from Japan to the South China Sea.

It authoritatively outlines major advances in China's warfighting doctrine, which place emphasis on surprise and brevity as the key to victory on the battlefield. The Pentagon paper presents a scenario where Chinese special forces "decapitate" the political leadership of Taiwan while fifth columns sabotage the island's communications and transportation networks. Chinese military hackers attack Taiwan's computer systems disrupting or counterfeiting commercial as well as military communications and anti-satellite attacks blind American intelligence collection. Submarine blockades of harbors and naval bases and missile launches on Taiwan's airbases are all essential to surprise and the decapitation of the government prevents Taiwan's leaders from asking the U.S. for help. In short, any war must be short and must end before the U.S. has time to intervene.

The Pentagon's paper also describes Chinese advances in numerous types of sophisticated weaponry, from "theatre-level weapons management" to "state-of-the-art intercept, direction finding and jamming" and "new concept" laser and radio frequency weapons as well as satellite guidance systems. The congressional commission's report explains how the Chinese are getting these capabilities, pointing to American, European, Japanese and most ironically Taiwanese chip-making firms who are providing China with "state-of-the-art" semiconductor fabrication technologies. Indeed the U.S. Commerce and State departments are approving the export of new wafer fabs with technology levels equal to the industry standard in the U.S. without any coherent (much less consistent) export control policy. As American businesses increase their investments in China, the commission sees a danger of America's defense industrial base becoming ever more dependent on Chinese-controlled companies and Chinese companies.

The commission's report also reminds Congress that China remains the world's leading proliferator of missile, nuclear and chemical weapons technology to state sponsors of terrorism, particularly Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea. Indeed, the report points out that China has made repeated oral and written commitments to the U.S. to cease this behavior but "not kept its word." China's behavior, the commission declares, is "an increasing threat to U.S. security interests, in the Middle East and Asia in particular."

These conclusions are not ill considered. They are the product of a year of intensive research, including nine public hearings involving 115 witnesses. Nor should the commission be dismissed as ultra-conservative China-bashers. It is composed of a dozen "wise men" (including one wise woman) appointed by Congress from outside the U.S. government. Three are true experts with doctorates in Chinese history, two served as U.S. defense attaches in Beijing, the rest have a broad range of business, legal and labor experience. Six represent the Republican and six the Democratic leaders in Congress. While they certainly do not represent the thinking of the China policy bureaucracy in the Bush administration, they do reflect the depth of feeling in both political parties on Capitol Hill.

Ever since the Chinese military detained the crew of an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft after its emergency landing on Hainan Island in April last year, sentiment has soured against China in Congress, the Defense Department and increasingly among the American public. These two reports may not be intended to deepen these sentiments but they certainly help to explain why they exist.

Contrary to the fervent hopes of the China policy community within the Bush administration, these two reports are likely to have far-reaching implications. They are public documents exhaustively researched and impeccably articulated with compelling logic. They will be cited for years to come both on Capitol Hill and by those elsewhere in the administration who don't share the inclination of some to see only the positive aspects of China's economic reforms while willfully ignoring the dangers posed by the modernization of the People's Liberation Army. As part of the public record, these documents will also change the dynamic of the China policy debate among businesses and concerned citizen public policy groups. This alone, gives the reports tremendous policy impact in the U.S.

But these reports should also help convince America policy wonks in Beijing that the U.S. is genuinely concerned about the risks posed by a "China threat." That realization might be enough to motivate Beijing to pay more attention to the impact its militarization is having on public opinion in the U.S., as well as in Taiwan and among the rest of its Asian neighbors. And if that causes Beijing to moderate its policies, then these reports will have contributed to maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific region.

John J. Tkacik, Jr., is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei, and was the chief of China intelligence in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal.