The Enemy With No Name

It wasn't entirely a warm welcome. As U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen kicked off his China trip last week, a headline in the state-run China Daily screamed, U.S. a threat to world peace. Cohen tried to tell military personnel at China's National Defense University that it is "simply untrue" to portray the United States as a "hegemon" determined to "contain China." Still, Beijing's press bad-mouthed everything from Washington's proposed National Missile Defense system (NMD) to American arms sales to Taiwan. The People's Liberation Army Daily called NMD "a rat scurrying across the street." It questioned why--despite the recent lessening of tensions between the Koreas--some 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea "just linger there and refuse to go home... They are an obstacle to peace."

Peace in Northeast Asia hinges increasingly on Sino-U.S. relations. Bilateral ties are currently at a tricky juncture. Both sides intermittently pay lip service to the idea of a "strategic partnership"--while nursing dark suspicions about the other's hostile intent. In Washington's view, Beijing's threats against Taiwan are destabilizing the region--and suggest China has aggressive military intentions. China, on the other hand, is convinced that U.S. missile-defense plans are targeted at Beijing. China's posture will help determine the future U.S. role in Asia: if Washington thinks Beijing intends to be a positive force in the region, some of the American troops deployed in the region may eventually go home. But if China tries to dominate its neighbors, the U.S. military will be unlikely to reduce its numbers. Explaining why GIs must remain vigilant--especially if North Korea's leaders live up to their new, friendlier image--requires Washington to point a finger at Beijing. It will do so--discreetly--as long as serious issues divide the two countries.

Washington doesn't want to alienate Beijing. Several years ago, when American military strategists first set out to plot the shape of Northeast Asian security needs in the year 2020, they saw China as a possible future adversary. But when the Pentagon finally released the document in May, it discreetly avoided naming China--and simply warned of the possible rise of a "peer competitor." Why? Because Washington thinks China is at an important crossroads: in this view, it could become either an economically prosperous power that participates constructively in the international community or a nationalistic bully. Says one U.S. official: "It could go either way." Washington worries that treating Beijing as a potential rival could simply fuel China's aggressive side. It's struggling to encourage Beijing down the more benign path. "The challenge is having the right kind of incentives," says a Pacific Forces Commander Adm. Dennis Blair.

Cohen's trip signaled that Sino-U.S. military relations have officially recovered from the freeze following NATO's May 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Three top U.S. officials have visited China in as many weeks, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Last week Cohen announced that Chinese officers have agreed to attend meetings at the Asia- Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii; he hoped that future cooperation would include humanitarian disaster relief and peacekeeping. Beijing has been slow to join such efforts, says one U.S. official, "out of fear of being co-opted [into a U.S.-dominated activity]."

Hard issues still divide the two. The most difficult is Taiwan. Beijing has not ruled out the use of force to reunify with Taiwan, which it considers a renegade island. Washington, meanwhile, continues to sell Taiwan defensive weaponry. Last week Chinese officials reacted angrily when Israel announced it would suspend a $250 million sale of advanced airborne warning technology to China. Washington opposed the deal because it would enhance China's capability to coordinate airstrikes against Taiwan. Chinese President Jiang Zemin raised the cancellation with Cohen. "Jiang clearly wasn't pleased about it," confirmed one U.S. official.

He's not happy about NMD, either. Beijing hopes the budding North-South rapprochement in Korea will undermine the U.S. administration's rationale for developing a $60 billion national missile-defense system aimed at protecting U.S. territory against missiles fired by so-called rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. China and Russia oppose the proposal, and Chinese arms-control official Sha Zukang hinted that Beijing and Moscow might accelerate joint efforts to thwart the scheme. "China will not sit on its hands doing nothing while seeing its security seriously damaged," Sha said. The Chinese believe that NMD could effectively neutralize their relatively small long-range nuclear-missile force, and complain that the United States won't admit China is a target--"Washington's not saying it out loud," says Asia analyst Robert Manning. Sha's voice dripped with irony as he described U.S. reassurances to the contrary: "We're certainly happy at hearing pleasant words like that," he said.

U.S. officials are more forthcoming about the uses of their proposed Theater Missile Defense scheme. The system is intended to shield U.S. and allied troops in the region from short-range missiles; it could also help protect Taiwan from Beijing. "China can damage Taiwan with its 300-odd M-9 and M-11 missiles," Blair told NEWSWEEK 's Gregory Beals. "A missile defense can offset that."

Beijing's official rhetoric has become markedly tougher since the 1980s; in those days, economic modernization took precedence over defense. "Beijing actually wanted the American military presence in South Korea," recalls retired foreign-affairs specialist Li Shenzhi. "Why? Because North Korea was like a mad dog--and no one knew who it might bite next." But economic growth has encouraged nationalism. Down the road, the presence of American GIs on the Korean peninsula may irritate Beijing more and more. "China will want to return to its regional status as the Middle Kingdom--and to implement its own version of the Monroe Doctrine," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. "It will not be able to accept the symbolism of foreign forces so close to its border." How will the two sides avoid a collision then?