Brian Birdnow

In December of 1978, President Carter ordered the institution of full U.S. diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (Communist China) and a corresponding diminution of American relations with the nationalist Chinese government on the island of Taiwan, the long-time U.S. ally. The Communist Chinese responded to Carter’s overture by invading Vietnam, a Soviet client state, in the winter of 1979. They clearly played the “American card” against the Russians in this instance, and destabilized the world in the process.

The 1980 election brought about a regime change in America, but the Reagan Administration made few changes in our China policy. Beijing, meanwhile, bided her time and quietly grew richer and stronger. In 1988 we Americans elected George H.W. Bush, an old China hand, to the Presidency. Bush contented himself by expressing ritualistic remorse over the Tiananmen Square massacre in June of 1989. Then we returned to business as usual. Through the early 1990s China grew stronger and more aggressive, showing harsh belligerence over the disputed Spratly Islands in 1992.

After Bill Clinton became the President in early 1993 he took a break from studying the underclothing of female interns long enough to announce a “strategic partnership” with Beijing. The Chinese, however, had other ideas. They ratcheted up their defense spending to alarming heights, while the rest of the developed world, including the USA, cut defense spending exponentially, reflecting the collapse of the Soviet Union and the American victory in the Cold War. The New York Times, ever clueless, asked editorially in 1995, “Why are the Chinese stepping on the defense spending accelerator, even as the rest of the world applies the brakes?” The Chinese saw a golden opportunity to catch up with the West; even the obtuse editors at the NYT should have been able to connect the dots.

During the Clinton years the Chinese did much more than significantly increase defense spending. Chinese spies stole American missile technology in 1994-95. The Chinese navy massed forces in the Taiwan Strait, apparently preparing for an attack in early 1996. In response to American questions regarding Chinese intentions the P.R.C. leaders declared that any American effort to defend Taiwan would result in full Chinese missile attacks on Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The election of George W. Bush in 2000 led to no tamping down of Chinese aggressiveness and provocations. In the spring of 2001 the Chinese air forces attacked an American surveillance plane operating over international waters, forced the plane down on Hainan Island, and held the crew hostage for two weeks. We apologized; the Chinese released the crew, and warned us about the consequences of repeating such reckless behavior. The Chinese have taken no part in the War on Terror, instead they have allowed we Americans to do the heavy lifting, even though they have a Muslim problem of their own in the western desert lands of their nation. While American energies have been diverted, the Chinese have helped to arm Iran, they have built submarine bases in Venezuela, and they instigated anti-Japanese riots at home. History may judge Bush favorably in his resolve to combat Islamic terrorism, but his China policy was non-existent.

So, where are we today? The P.R.C. leaders confidently speak of the “Chinese Century”. They talk of “Greater China”, which includes Taiwan, Singapore, Burma and Mongolia. Chinese military planners denounce America as the “Main Enemy”, and they are actively preparing for war. Chinese military plans include the use of cyber-warfare to loot American bank accounts, chemical warfare to poison American fresh water supplies, and old-fashioned espionage to knockout American power grids. The only reassuring factor in this chilling scenario is the near certainty that we could inflict identical damage on the Chinese, if our leaders mustered the will to do so. But, Mr. Clinton prattled on about our “strategic partnership” with China; Mr. Bush called for “constructive engagement” with the Chinese, and Mr. Obama, while he seems to be realizing the reality of the Chinese threat, appears to be pursuing a strategy based on not rocking the boat.

In short, we are seeing nothing new from China. The Chinese leaders are simply carrying on the studied strategy of the last forty years. China’s astonishing growth in strength and wealth guarantee that the world must treat her with respect and caution. We must now conclude, however, that China is an aggressive, covetous, and dangerous expansionist power. Even the New York Times editors now see this fact clearly. The Chinese dragon is breathing fire. What is to be done?

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.