Image: China missile
China's space agency launches a commercial U.S. satellite in 1996.
By MSNBC
COMMENTARY

This week, like all Americans, I learned that China is our enemy. I can expect my Chinese-made mountain bike to be melted down for tank armor. My backpack (“Made in China”) has to go, too; it could be secretly transmitting my position to the Peoples Liberation Army. And that Chinese restaurant down the street: No more lo mein for me! When my Congress picks an enemy, I hate first and ask questions later. I assume the buses to “resettle” the restaurant’s owners will be arriving shortly.

THIS IS GROSSLY exaggerated satire. Yet it is right in step with the hyperbolic reaction of much of the Republican Party to the Clinton administration’s relationship with China. If there is a campaign-finance scandal, then let’s finally deal with it and stop blocking reform bills. If there was a lapse in export controls, fix that, too. But the current climate is reckless and potentially far more damaging to the United States than anything Clinton might have done in a Republican paranoid fantasy. If you wanted to start a new Cold War with China, you could do worse than follow the opportunistic game plan of the U.S. Congress.

Currently, the word “enemy” is being thrown around with regard to China by people whose primary concern is neither the relationship between the United States and China nor national security. The real enemy to these people is and always has been the president of the United States.

Rep. Dan Burton, the discredited Republican who led the last round of fruitless political investigations against the president, typified Republican reactions when he asked with feigned import: “Is it treason? I don’t know. I hope not.”

The sad reality is that Burton and his colleagues would rather the allegations be true than face the prospect of Clinton serving out his term. Who is the traitor in that scenario?

INJECTING REALITY

Opposing sides of the great China debate in the United States — “constructive engagers” vs. “containers” — agree on very little other than the fact that it would be better for all concerned if China would develop into a friendly democratic state in the early part of the next century.

From there spring many tributaries of dissent, each following its own meandering and lonely path of outraged indignity. Tibet-fetishists, anti-abortion campaigners, liberal human rights advocates, textile and manufacturing union leaders, displaced anti-communists — a motley but dedicated crew lying in wait of the issue that would unite them all against the Red Menace.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin waves as he wears an 18th-century American colonial tricorn hat during a tour of colonial Williamsburg last October.
Clinton’s policies — exhumed from the political grave of George Bush — carry the seal of approval of almost all of America’s great industrial lobbies, its mainstream think tanks, State Department professionals, Pentagon brass and, most importantly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In a nutshell, the president believes of China what Ronald Reagan believed of South Africa: doing business there will give the United States leverage where it would otherwise have none and help implant democratic (or multinational corporate) ideals in that country’s soil.

Clinton took up this challenge with vigor, leading a commercial charge devoid of principle — as all capitalism necessarily is — but one that also left Europe and Japan lagging in the competition for huge Chinese projects. Among the companies that have thrived as a result: Boeing, Rockwell International, Westinghouse, Bechtel, General Motors, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and General Electric (which together pay my salary — MSNBC is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC, which is owned by General Electric).

Has this paid off? Economically, there is little doubt — just check last month’s jobless statistics for evidence of Perot’s “sucking sound” as American jobs were transferred out of the country.

Politically, the case is harder to make, but on balance the news has been good. China continues to repress political speech, religious and reproductive freedom (though many of China’s opponents might fail that last test, too.) And yes, Tibet remains under Beijing’s boot — and likely will remain that way for many years to come.

But China since 1993, when Clinton began “coddling” its dictators, has also committed itself to sweeping economic reforms that free workers and managers from political control and aim to dismantle the state sector of its economy. It has also started to introduce a code of civil law — a major step toward accountability. More impressively still, it has allowed the election of the pro-democracy forces that swept into office in Hong Kong just this past weekend. China is no democracy, but neither is it the China of Burton’s opportunistic mind.

CHINA AND ITS MISSILES

“Every man, woman and child in the United States now is in jeopardy of nuclear incineration by the communist Chinese because of the technology transferred to China with the help of this president,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican, said last week. This outrageous statement overlooks the important reality that every man, woman and child in the United States has been in that same jeopardy since at least the middle of the 1980s, when the Reagan administration first issued waivers that allowed U.S. companies to use Chinese rockets to launch satellites. It’s doubly outrageous since Rohrabacher was one of more than a dozen California members of Congress who begged Clinton for just such a waiver for hometown political contributor Hughes Aerospace in 1994.

In fact, there is a great deal of nonsense being disseminated right now about China and its nuclear capabilities. For instance, is it really surprising, as a breathlessly quoted CIA report claims, that 13 of China’s 18 long-range missiles are targeting the United States? Exactly which world power did Washington think this paltry arsenal was meant to impress? India? Long-range not required. Russia? Well, as anyone at Strategic Air Command headquarters will tell you, 18 missiles won’t help much in a fight with them. While we’re on the subject, exactly where does the average American think the 12,200 U.S. weapons are targeted? Fiji? Serbia? Iceland, maybe?

The flap over the accuracy of China’s missiles is another red herring. To anyone with recollection of the salad days of nuclear terror, it is quite obvious that an arsenal of a dozen and a half relatively unreliable ballistic missiles does not rely on accuracy for its punch. Accuracy, in the sick calculus of ICBMs, is the measure of a missile’s ability to hit and destroy hardened targets — silos, command bunkers — thus giving one country the credible threat of a knock-out punch. In the late 1980s, the United States roughly obtained that advantage, but only when its arsenal reached upwards of 15,000 missiles — enough to survive a first strike by the other side. China’s force, like the comparably sized forces of Britain and France, is by its very nature a deterrent force, especially when paired with behemoths like the United States or Russia.

CAMPAIGN SLEAZE

The only true issue in this latest outbreak of political herpes is whether the Clinton Administration’s decisions to allow Loral and Hughes into the game were made because of their generous political support for Democratic campaign funds. That truly is a question that goes straight to the heart of what is wrong with both national political parties.

It would be nice to think that Congress would create a bipartisan committee on campaign-finance reform and commit to passing whatever it recommends without amendment. So discredited are both parties on this issue (Democrats as bottom-feeders, Republicans as obstructers of reform) that neither can be depended on to do the right thing.

But on China, it is time for cooler heads to prevail. This is not a national security issue — it is an export control issue. China was and is a nuclear power and it will become stronger with or without the United States. What it will not do — at least not in the lifetime of the average bleating member of the U.S. Congress — is threaten the security of the United States.

So the question right now is not “Who lost China?” as it famously was in 1949, when the victory of the communists there sparked what would become the McCarthy hearings. Right now the question is “Who should be allowed to do business with China?” That’s a huge difference. But if the heat of political rhetoric does not moderate, we may find ourselves asking the other question yet again.

International Editor Michael Moran writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for MSNBC.com.

Copyright MSNBC 1999

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