China Fragile Superpower

I am grateful to the Center staff (especially Kathleen Much), the other fellows, and Don Lamm for encouraging my interest in writing for a broader audience beyond academia. This aspiration became reality thanks to my research assistant, Yu Zheng, my agent, Jill Marsal, of the Djikstra Agency, and my editors at Oxford University Press—Peter Ginna, who edited the manuscript, Tim Bartlett, Dedi Felman, Tim Bent, and the copyeditor, Paula Cooper.

The intellectual stimulation and personal support provided by colleagues and staff at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California, San Diego (especially Peter Cowhey, Stephan Haggard, and Barry Naughton), the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, and the U. S. government greatly contributed to the book. I also wish to thank Jeffrey Bader, Tai Ming Cheung, Thomas Christensen, and Andrew Walder for their helpful comments on the manuscript, and to Alastair Iain Johnston for sharing his unpublished research with me.

My husband, Sam Popkin, and my children, Lucy Popkin and David Popkin (the newest China hand in the family), provided loving encouragement and good advice every step of the way. Finally, I am deeply grateful to the many Chinese government officials, military officers, scholars, think-tank experts, journalists, and students I interviewed for informing me and my readers about China’s domestic situation and foreign policy. This page intentionally left blank China Fragile Superpower This page intentionally left blank

1 Strong Abroad but Fragile at Home S THE DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE responsible for American relations with China in the Clinton administration, I constantly worried about the risk of war between the two nuclear powers. A war between China and the United States is terrifying to contemplate. China’s Asian neighbors would be on the front line and people all over the world would feel the shockwaves. When I left the government and resumed my job as a university professor, these worries continued to haunt me.

I can still imagine receiving the dreaded phone call from the State Department Operations Center: A “The Pentagon just informed us that a Chinese SU-27 jet fighter and a Taiwanese F-16 jet fighter have collided in the Taiwan Strait. ” My heart sinks. I have heard that the military aircraft patrolling the narrow body of water between the island of Taiwan and the Chinese Mainland fly dangerously close to one another, despite U. S. warnings to the two sides. “What about the pilots? ” I ask. “Have they bailed out? Been rescued?

” “We don’t know yet,” says the Op Center voice. “Has either side made a public statement? Or communicated with us? Have we seen any military moves from either side? ” “No information yet, ma’am. But CNN is just reporting it now. ” I dash to my car and speed back to the State Department, using the moments of calm before entering the storm of the crisis to make a plan. What should our government do to prevent the accident from triggering a war between China and Taiwan—and very likely drawing in the United States?

I play through the various scenarios, and they all have one common thread. If CNN is broadcasting the news of the crash, it is sure to be picked up and spread by the Internet in China before the Communist Party censors 2 china: fragile superpower can block it out. And once the news is public, China’s leaders will feel compelled by the pressure of public opinion to react forcefully. A forceful reaction is not beyond the pale. Flashpoints for military clashes between China and the United States have multiplied in recent years.

And although most Americans have forgotten, China and the United States came to the brink of war in 1996. The Chinese launched massive military exercises and shot missiles into the waters outside Taiwan’s ports to demonstrate their fury at our allowing Taiwan’s president to visit the United States for the first time since we derecognized Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979. Envisioning the scenario as it

unfolds, when I reach my office in the State Department, I learn that President Hu Jintao has already appeared on China Central Television: “My fellow countrymen, earlier today a Taiwan air force plane flew across the midline of the Taiwan Strait, veering into a People’s Liberation Army air force jet and causing it to crash into the sea, killing its brave pilot. This flagrant and barbarous act was a deliberate provocation by the Taiwan authorities to provoke antagonism across the Taiwan Strait and undermine the status quo. The Mainland and Taiwan belong to one and the same China.

” Following the pattern of previous crises, the Chinese leaders have immediately framed the situation as an intentional attack on China and boxed themselves into a corner. Now how will they prove their determination to defend the national honor against this “deliberate provocation”? Taiwan is an issue that arouses intense nationalist emotions in China. The Japanese colonized the island from 1895 to 1945 when China was too weak to resist, during a period that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) school textbooks describe as China’s “century of humiliation.

” Ever since 1949, when the Chinese civil war ended with a Communist victory and the defeated Guomindang retreated to Taiwan, Chinese schoolchildren have been taught that the century of humiliation would finally end only when Taiwan was reunified with the Mainland. It is widely believed in China and abroad that if the Communist regime allows Taiwan to declare formal independence without putting up a fight, the outraged public will bring down the regime. China’s military and political leaders know full well that the United States, while not legally bound to intervene, has committed morally and politically to help Taiwan defend itself.

They also realize that China’s booming economy would be the first casualty in any military conflict with Taiwan and the United States. Nevertheless, they would use force to avoid domestic humiliation if they believed their political survival depended on it. Strong Abroad but Fragile at Home 3 After consulting with the secretary of state, I call the National Security Council staff. We agree that the president should immediately telephone China’s president to urge him not to mobilize the military or to make any public threats against Taiwan. Forget about using the Foreign Ministry channel.

We have to get straight to China’s top leader, who will be feeling the heat domestically as well as internationally. And only our president can reach their president. For our part, we will intercede with the Taiwan government and ask it not to mobilize its military forces and to return the Mainland crew promptly. It is too late. American intelligence reports that China has mobilized not only its regular military forces but also its internal security forces. Angry Chinese students are swarming into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the central squares of other Chinese cities, shouting, “Down with the Taiwan separatists!

” Some in the crowds carry hastily made signs saying, “Down with the America-loving Chinese Communist Party toadies! ” and “When will China finally stand up? ” This scene is hypothetical, but it is not a fantasy. Crises like this have happened in the past and could happen in the future. Taiwan is just a hair short of being a formal ally of the United States. We are not legally obligated to come to its defense. But an American law called the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 does require the president to view any Chinese use of force against Taiwan as a “threat to the peace and security” of the region and to consult with Congress on how to react.

American sympathies— especially those of members of Congress—have always lain much more with the small democratic island of Taiwan than with the communist giant China. The executive branch and the foreign policy community would worry that if U. S. forces fail to stand up to Chinese bullying, American credibility in Asia and the rest of the world would be harmed seriously. The United States has more than seventy thousand soldiers in uniform deployed in Asia in order to defend our allies and deter aggression. If we don’t use these soldiers to defend Taiwan, wouldn’t other countries view the United States as a paper tiger?

For all these reasons, any president is likely to feel compelled to respond to Chinese military actions in the Taiwan Strait by making a strong military gesture of our own in the hopes that this show of resolve will end the crisis by forcing Beijing to de-escalate just as it did in 1996. But the next crisis could escalate instead if the Chinese leaders believe that caving in to the United States would cause them to be humiliated domestically and put the survival of their regime at risk. Crisis escalation has a life of its own.