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China Syndrome

April 30, 2005

In his press conference last night, President Bush paid scant attention to China. Outside of the contexts of the North Korean nuclear crisis and climbing global demand for energy, the administration has been virtually silent about China's growing superpower status.
The rapid transformation of China into a formidable strategic competitor for the United States may not be on George Bush's radar screen, but it is for just about everyone else. In the June issue of The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan and Benjamin Schwarz weigh on the looming regional and global threat from Chinese power. Also this week, the Progressive Policy Institute looks at the dramatic impact of Chinese energy consumption and pollution on the global environment.
Perrspectives too has been focused on China's growing superpower status as one of the key challenges of American global leadership and economic prosperity. As I wrote last June:

Even more dramatic than the steady rise of the EU as an economic force is that of China. And this hasn�t gone unnoticed by Americans. As the press has widely reported, the Chinese demand for energy has had a major impact in driving up the prices of gasoline in the United States. The statistics for the Chinese economy are undeniable and staggering: 1.3 billion people, passing Japan with the second largest GDP ($6 billion), growth rates approaching 10%, and an annual trade surplus (2003) with the U.S. topping $120 billion. China�s manufacturing leadership, increasingly competitive high-tech sector, WTO membership and even the 2008 Beijing Olympics clearly point to a greater Chinese role on the international stage.
Competition does not have to mean conflict, but the challenge posed Chinese power is a serious one that requires subtlety, not Bush-style machismo. The 2001 confrontation over the collision of a Chinese MiG and an U.S. EP3 spy plane showed the tension � and nationalism � just below the surface of Sino-American relations. China�s comparatively small nuclear arsenal and lack of a blue-water fleet limit its ability today to project power globally. Its increasing regional power in the Asia/Pacific theater, however, is unquestioned. Chinese mediation has become central to resolution of the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Growing Chinese belligerency and confidence towards Taiwan will put extreme pressure on American policymakers and the 55 year-old U.S. commitment to Taiwan�s defense.

And just this February, I highlighted how the changing relationships of China to the U.S. and EU could also put pressure on the Trans-Atlantic partnership:

A new CIA strategic forecast projects China (as well as India) as rising powers which could potentially threaten U.S. leadership. China's massive trade surplus with the United States, its huge holdings of U.S. treasuries and its unquenchable thirst for energy increasingly impacts American economic prosperity. Last week's announcement of IBM's sale of its PC division to Chinese leader Lenovo was a potent symbol of things to come. Worried U.S. officials may seek to block the deal. But whether it goes through or not, the tensions over China's regional and worldwide economic power will only grow.
To bring the changing global landscape for the United States full circle, EU leaders announced last week that they would seek to end the European Union arms boycott of China. Driven by France and Germany, with the grudging approval of the UK, the EU will end the Chinese arms ban imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Pentagon officials and the U.S. national security establishment will have more sleepless nights with the prospect of an increasingly muscular and belligerent Chinese military acquiring sophisticated European weaponry. China is a strategic rival for the United States; not so for the EU. So while President Bush and Condi Rice may speak of greater cooperation with Europe in the war on terror, this issue of growing strategic divergence across the Atlantic will require serious diplomacy - and soon.

Managing China's coming superpower status should be at the center American economic and national security concerns. The Bush administration once again just does not have its eyes on the prize.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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