A Liaison For What?
IN THE NEXT few weeks, China and the United States will officially open liaison offices in each other's capitals. It may be useful to examine some of the preconceptions which could undermine mutual understanding between these two countries in the coming years.
The Chinese and American people remain woefully lacking in information concerning each other. Particularly in the United States, glowing press reports and hastily written books cannot provide a substitute for the patient research required to give the American people and their leaders a broader idea of China's political, economic and cultural process. It would not be an exaggeration to say that on all too many occasions, discussions on China become submerged in a torrent of acupuncture needles.
One pitfall which United States emissaries to China will face is attributing to the Peking leadership an inflated sense of dependence on the United States. A familiar refrain, which the Chinese have already sought to deny, is that Peking wants the United States to keep its bases in Asia in order to convince the Soviet Union that the United States presence remains tangible and must not be underrated. It is apparent that to maintain U.S. bases can only stifle the aspirations of nations on China's periphery to reduce internal tensions and to improve relations with neighboring countries.
The "base" myth seems harmless compared to the view that China's leaders intend that their friendship with the United States serve as a guarantee that the United States would not remain neutral in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack on China. While it is interesting to read Joseph Alsop's report of President Nixon's refusal in February 1969 to join the Soviet Union in a preemptive attack on China's fledgling nuclear facilities, it may be unwarranted to draw the conclusion that the United States would ever sacrifice its basic national security interests for China's sake. During the last 150 years, the United States has never risked its neck for China. It is hard to forget that until shortly before Japan's attack on the U.S. navy base at Pearl Harbor, the United States continued to supply Japan with scrap iron and oil crucial to its decade-long war effort against China.
AN EVEN MORE insidious idea is that the Chinese will engage in trade expressly for the purpose of giving the United States benefits not permitted to other countries. Such "political" trade can only complicate already strained commercial relations between the United States and its Japanese and European partners. Again, it is necessary to recall that misguided efforts prior to World War II by the United States and Japan to monopolize the China trade helped precipitate the conflict in the Pacific.
United States diplomats will not be the only ones to bring discolored perceptions to the new U.S.-China relationship. One motivating factor in China's strategy will probably be a continued preoccupation with internal political affairs. In particular, former Vice Chairman Lin Piao, although named Mao's successor by the 1969 congress of the Chinese Communist Party, is now accused of betraying his country, evidently to the Soviets. Of all of Mao's opponents in the Communist Party, Lin appears to be the first to have been labelled "traitor" to the nation.
The Peking leaders have overwhelming justification for fearing the Soviet Union, which has stationed one million men on the China border and a nuclear phalanx in nearby Mongolia. On the other hand, it may be that in their dealings with the United States and in their own internal debates, the Chinese will tend to exaggerate the extent of the Soviet threat and particularly the Soviet desire to continue to commit vast resources to the military buildup on the China border. Could it be that the Soviets have learned from the Vietnam war that the massive use of force against Asian countries can lead to, at best, only a hopeless stalemate?
IT IS IMPORTANT that the United States build a solid, long-term relationship with China, one which would not fizzle in the event -- for example -- of a limited Sino-Soviet rapprochement. The United States should not make any promises which it is not certain that it can carry out.
During a recent talk to students in East Asian legal studies at Harvard, McGill University Professor Paul Lin made a comment concerning China's internal institutional development which may have some application to the problem of Sino-American relations. To borrow his terminology: the United States and China should now attempt to find an optimal balance in the building of their relations in order not to create political and economic imbalances which might jeopardize their long-term relationship and relations among other countries in Asia.