Accessibility links

World: Analysis From Washington -- Thunder Out Of China

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 26 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to China appears likely to speed up the ongoing reordering of the international system, unsettling a variety of old relationships around the world even as it creates a variety of new ones.

The rapprochement between the United States and China that this visit symbolizes already has had a profound impact on power relations in Asia.

The new warmth in Washington's relationship with Beijing first of all raises questions about the future of American support for Taiwan, an island that China claims and that the U.S. has traditionally defended against Beijing's pressure.

In addition, India's decision to develop nuclear weapons reflects at least in part Delhi's concerns about the rise of Chinese power and the absence of any system of countervailing power on the Asian mainland.

And the economic difficulties of the Pacific rim states, including Japan, have been exacerbated by Beijing's growing power and the deference a variety of world leaders have displayed toward the Chinese leadership.

Indeed, many commentators across this region have suggested that the reason the U.S. moved to defend the Japanese yen earlier this month had less to do with any concern for the welfare of Japan than out of a fear that a Japanese devaluation could force China to follow suit.

This assumption about American motivations, correct or not, simultaneously reflects and intensifies the tendency of countries in this region to reevaluate their ties with the West and their relations with China.

At the same time, a similar if less immediately dramatic set of recalculations appears to be going on among America's traditional allies, the countries of Western Europe.

For most of the post-World War II period, they have been Washington's only "strategic partners." And consequently, the American application of that term to China suggests that Washington is likely to pay relatively less attention to them in the future.

And consequently, even though many European leaders welcome what they describe as a less ideological approach by the U.S. to the world's last communist giant, they worry that the refocusing of American attention could affect not only their relationships with Washington but their security as well.

Finally, Clinton's meetings in China this week and next are likely to have a profound effect on Russia and on Russian relations with its neighbors. While Moscow has remained upbeat in public about these sessions, it is obviously concerned and is preparing to react.

Even before the American president arrived in China, the Russian authorities demonstrated that they were prepared to counter American moves there. Moscow announced that it was selling to China one of the most advanced nuclear submarines it makes.

But the issue for Moscow is far more complicated than that simple response might suggest. On the one hand, Russia is clearly worried about any American tilt toward China that would reduce American interest in and support for Moscow's reforms.

Many commentators in Russia have pointedly asked whether they would have received more American attention if they had not tried to become democratic but had simply tried to move their economy forward.

And on the other, many Russian geopolitical thinkers appear to be reflecting on whether the apparent American deference to China's new role in Asia marks a new willingness by Washington to defer to regional powers.

If the United States is prepared to defer to China in its backyard, they are asking, perhaps Washington will be increasingly prepared to defer to Russian interests in what Moscow considers its backyard, the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Obviously Clinton's visit does not necessarily determine any of these outcomes. But it does open the door to additional changes in the international system both as a result of his meetings and in reaction to them.

XS
SM
MD
LG