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Jewish World Review April 6, 2001 / 13 Nissan, 5761

George Will

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Reading China -- WHEN the spat with China concerning the U.S. intelligence-gathering plane began, it was commonly called the first foreign policy "crisis" to "test" President Bush. Actually, it is testing his ability to see that not everything that roils relations between nations is a crisis. And it is testing his ability to discern that not every trouble is a "test" of his fiber or the nation's stamina.

As this is written (Wednesday, noon), one thing is clear, and one thing is not. Clearly the plane was using technology that enables it, operating in international airspace, lawfully to perform the routine but important function of gathering intelligence that enables U.S. policymakers to understand the evolving strategic environment. It is unclear whether China's government knew what was going on in the increasingly aggressive reaction of Chinese aircraft to U.S. intelligence flights.

If this affair is the result of an accident -- a Chinese cowboy-pilot crossing a line of prudence, and losing his life -- then the episode can be quickly tidied up. If the affair is the result of a Chinese military decision not sanctioned by Beijing's civilians, that is disquieting evidence of command-and-control problems as China approaches a leadership transition.

China's government probably did not consciously provoke this dust-up. However, it has deliberately, and recklessly, prolonged it at a moment when (to cite just two matters) the U.S. Congress is considering Taiwan's request for new military equipment, including defenses against missiles, and the International Olympic Committee is considering China's application to host the 2008 games. Is this smart? Does not Beijing already have a plate heaped high with problems?

On a recent visit to Beijing, Henry Kissinger was struck by proliferation of "Internet cafes." Those small businesses are huge portents.

Totalitarianism, which aspires to nationalize the public's consciousness, depends on intellectual autarky, which depends on a government monopoly of information. Totalitarianism is rendered impossible, and perhaps even tyranny is rendered difficult, by technologies that make nations porous to information. China already was becoming porous in 1989 when students there learned about the Tiananmen Square massacres by e-mails from Ann Arbor and other American campuses where they had studied and made friends.

During his recent visit, Kissinger was told by a Chinese official that 100 million Chinese -- think of the U.S. population west of the Mississippi -- are currently on the move, either from country to city in a migration-of-modernization, or away from employment in sclerotic state-run industries, into the private economy. And this instability may be just a minor prologue.

The 19th century -- in Germany, Italy, the United States, even in France, and elsewhere -- was a century of nation consolidations. (Some immigrants from France arriving at Ellis Island identified their home "country" as a region of France, e.g., Auvergne or Brittany, and historian Eugen Weber notes, "In sundry parts of France at the fin de siecle many people still spoke no French or spoke it only with difficulty.") But the 20th century -- from the dissolution of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires as a result of the First World War, to the unraveling of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and even the weakening of the ties that bind the United Kingdom -- was a disintegrative century.

So ask yourself, as China's leaders must be asking themselves: How likely is it that -- and what will be required in the way of repressions or concessions to guarantee that -- 50 years from now one-fifth of the human race will still live in one country called China?

U.S. policymakers should not see U.S.-China relations as analogous to U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Then, it was sensible for the United States to try to impede the growth of the power of an implacably hostile Soviet Union. But China's power is going to grow as China's economy grows. And hostility need not grow, indeed should wane, as China becomes immersed in the culture of commerce -- contracts, lawfulness, transparency, promise-keeping.

However, as during the Cold War, there is in America an appeasement caucus. During the Cold War it was eager to explain, and by explaining to justify, Soviet misbehavior as the "understandable" result of historic Russian "insecurity" about "encirclement." Today the caucus reflexively rationalizes Chinese misbehavior as the "understandable" result of historic "humiliations" at the hands of the West.

Such reasoning always is a recipe for turning U.S. foreign policy into psychotherapy for victim nations. It is time for the caucus, and China, to grow up.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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