The China Card
To the Editor:
Edward N. Luttwak [“Against the China Card,” October 1978] does not mention that for many years, as a result of our insistence on the myth of monolithic Communism, we permitted our policy toward Peking to be guided by the Soviet Union and our relations with that country. In effect we let Moscow hold our “China card” and thus played against a stacked deck with tragic results. Theodore H. White’s In Search of History makes the point that had we established relations with the Communist government once it had gained control of the mainland, instead of letting the “China card” go by default, we might have been spared the agonies of both the Korean and Vietnam wars.
It used to be quite fashionable to speak of “the Carter administration’s inept foreign policy”—some change in this assessment has taken place lately—but if we want to speak of real ineptness we could use no better example than American foreign policy with relation to China and Southeast Asia after World War II. This must include the amateurish way President Nixon and Henry Kissinger handled the opening of relations with Peking’s Communist regime. In this connection it might be well to explode the Nixon-expert-on-foreign-policy myth, at least as far as East Asia is concerned. Peking undoubtedly preferred Nixon in the way that Nixon preferred to have Senator McGovern as his opponent in the 1972 presidential election: in both cases these opposites were favored because it was felt that they were inferior opponents and thus easier to deal with, which proved correct.
Mr. Luttwak informs us that “in the reality of history China has more often been divided than united”; therefore, there should be no reason why we could not deal with two Chinas—the mainland and Taiwan. In this instance, however, we are facing a substantially different situation, since both Communists and Nationalists “accept the pretense that there is only one China.” They are in complete agreement on this point and will brook no compromise, nor will they agree to an alternative position. Furthermore, we are deluding ourselves when we speak of our “abandoning” Taiwan; the reverse is more likely to occur. Should the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan in the near future face an ever increasing native Taiwanese independence movement not interested in “the pretense that there is only one China,” they may very well decide to “abandon” us and make their peace with Peking to avoid losing Taiwan as a province of the one China they and the Communists believe in so strongly. They probably will end up being decorated as Chinese patriots by the Peking regime. There are instances “in the reality of the history of China” to support such turnarounds, and I suggest we prepare ourselves for this one.
For this reason I would advocate that we stick to a policy of quiet and benign neglect with regard to the Peking-Taiwan issue. After several attempts to pressure us to accept their terms, the Communists have again proved themselves to be pragmatists par excellence. . . . We are now witnessing an almost revolutionary development in Peking’s desire for more and more contacts with us. Once the Communists realize that we prefer to do nothing—one way or the other—about Taiwan and that we will not be swayed by any threats or pressures, they will put this issue on the proverbial back burner. They have temporarily shelved other international issues they consider unresolved—such as borders—when it suited their purpose.
That Chinese Communist policy can be flexible and change in order to come to terms with reality is pointed out by Mr. Luttwak himself. He writes that “until Mao’s death it was the position of the Chinese leaders that they needed no technological know-how from the outside world. . . . Now Peking’s policies appear to have been reversed. . . .” It would be reasonable to deduce that Mao, after vainly having tried to obtain American assistance during and after World War II and not wishing to accept the terms the Soviets attached to their aid, made a virtue out of necessity and proclaimed the doctrine of complete self-sufficiency. Now world conditions have changed and so has United States foreign policy. We have finally realized that mainland China cannot be excluded from world politics and we are now prepared to do what we should have done thirty years ago: face the reality of China’s recent history. In picking up the “China card” at last and adding it to our hand we must, of course, take care that it will not be used carelessly—or, rather, ineptly—as has been done in the past. . . .
I will leave to others to answer the scenarios Mr. Luttwak so diligently sets up and then so eloquently destroys. Even the SALT negotiations look different today from the way Mr. Luttwak describes them. There is no need to tilt or exercise brinkmanship as has been done in the past; but as far as this writer is concerned, I am greatly pleased to see the “China card” back in our hands where it belongs.
Walter A. Sheldon
Lido Beach, New York
To the Editor:
As one who has written and spoken over the last three decades in favor of playing the “China card” and who, at the same time, has the highest regard for Edward N. Luttwak as one of our outstanding strategic thinkers, I have been placed in somewhat of a quandary by his article, “Against the China Card.” After much thought, I have concluded that, as Tacitus said of Homer at rare moments, Mr. Luttwak, too, has nodded.
Surely, Mr. Luttwak knows better than most the crucial role in maintaining the peace played throughout history by the balance of power. When a rough balance prevailed, peace reigned; when the equilibrium of power became significantly unbalanced, war was the almost certain outcome. . . .
Mr. Luttwak, early in his article, gives a dispiriting overview of America’s parlous condition. He . . . concludes that: “Having tried our best to reach a stable accord with the Soviet Union, we must now face the brutal fact that we have failed—perhaps . . . because our weakness is all too real” (emphasis added).
After this . . ., one is prepared for an argument in support of playing the “China card”; all the more so because Mr. Luttwak grants at the very outset that the “premises of the argument are incontestable.”. . .
Given the dangerous imbalance in favor of the Soviet Union, are not the risks of not playing the “China card” even greater and more immediate? Indeed, does not the historic evidence point to the fact that the disastrous failures of America’s postwar Far Eastern policy are in great part attributable to our earlier unwillingness to do so? To paraphrase Churchill on democracy, playing the “China card” may be the worst solution—except for all the others.
Most surprising, therefore, is the absence in Mr. Luttwak’s critique of an alternative policy, unless we take his urging us to “play the ‘American card,’ mustering more of our own strength for our own purposes” to stand for such an alternative. But just a moment’s thought should suggest that this is a false dichotomy. On the one hand, a strong America is a necessary condition to the success of the China policy since, unless America shows both the will and strength to meet the Soviet challenge, China will have no reason to play the “American card.” On the other hand, even with the greatest exertions, the United States will need China to restore and then maintain the balance for years to come. It is not those who want a “free lunch” but those of us who want a strong America who have been the most persistent supporters of a “tilt” toward China.
At this point, I should like to outline . . . my thesis that playing the “China card” is only a particular application of basic balance-of-power principles to our present predicament.
- The Eurasian continent is the critical mass in the world balance of power upon which world peace depends. Nevertheless, from 1949 until the historic Nixon-Kissinger visit to China, we attempted to create separate balancing structures for Europe and Asia while, paradoxically, harboring the disastrous misconception of the Soviet Union and Communist China as a monolithic force bound by a common ideology. As events have amply demonstrated, behind the façade of ideological unity, Russia and China were locked by history and geography in an ineluctable struggle over the vast borderlands imperial Russia won from a weakened China. Our setbacks in East Asia—from Korea to Vietnam—can be attributed in large part to our failure to take these antagonisms into account.
- Since 1966 (the unhinging of the Mao-Sukarno axis), China has turned inward to cope with its vast internal problems and, under Chou En-lai’s tutelage, create a modern industrial state, tasks which will diminish its challenge until the end of the century. At the same time, Russia’s expansionism has grown apace and its policy has become more intransigent. The grand strategy of the Russian empire seeks nothing less than global hegemony through the containment of China in the East and the conquest of Europe in the West. Should Russia succeed, the world balance of power will have shifted decisively in its favor with war or submission as the only alternatives.
- It follows that a sound American grand strategy encompasses an integrated balance-of-power doctrine for the entire Eurasian land mass, whereby the outer ring of U.S. alliances responds to the inner Soviet-Chinese contradictions under all changing conditions. Since expansionist Russia is today’s threat to peace and American security, while the Chinese potential threat lies beyond this century, this is the time to “tilt” toward China and play the “China card.” . . .
- China and the United States have long-term parallel interests in countering Russian expansionism on all continents and China has openly signaled its support of a strong NATO. The dynamism of renewed ties must not be dissipated in a continuing futile search for a one-sided “détente” with Russia. The Chinese have given clear signs that a compromise formula on Taiwan can be devised. Their pragmatic leaders have placed Taiwan on the back burner and that issue will not be allowed to stand in the way of active collaboration in all spheres. . . .
Mr. Luttwak urges that our long-term goal must be to achieve a gradual “Europeanization” of the Russians. I should say, rather, that it must be to persuade both Russia and China that it is in their best interests to join the world community as peaceful members and play according to civilized rules in their conduct of internal and international affairs. The question left unanswered is how to persuade an expansionist Russia hell-bent on conquest other than by confronting it with sufficient strength to deter it from the present aggressive course and exhibiting a show of good will if it takes the path of peace. The balance-of-power policy seeks peace, not war. At this juncture, the truly remarkable opportunity of Chinese collaboration is a crucial element in that power balance and, therefore, a force for peace.
A final word. An American grand strategy capable of maintaining the peace or defeating an aggressor cannot, of course, be confined to playing the “China card,” but this larger subject is beyond the scope of both the article and this letter. Suffice it to say: we have the wherewithal, do we have the will?
Elias M. Schwarzbart
New York City
Edward N. Luttwak writes:
In reading the letters of Walter A. Sheldon and Elias M. Schwarzbart I sensed that both have claims to Sinological expertise; I do not. My article was merely a strategic analysis of an important issue that happened to revolve around China; such competence as I claim is restricted purely to strategy itself, and not to its diverse objects, be they countries or individual weapon-systems. This places me in a difficult position in answering the two letters, whose arguments are not within the realm of the strategic but rather pertain to the nature of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Further, I labor under the additional difficulty that my article was by no means a complete analysis: any strategic analysis that is truly such must follow a spiral path of reasoning, with conclusions reached on each turn partly contradicted upon the next turn as the reverse side of each proposition comes into view. (Thus in the article itself there is a partial contradiction where it is pointed out that the United States might benefit from helping the PRC, perhaps indirectly, to remedy certain specific military weaknesses which could otherwise expose Peking to Moscow’s direct coercion.) Such indeterminacy is inherent in strategy properly defined, and the source of the great complications that drive so many to seek refuge in simplistic solutions, especially cheap simplistic solutions.
Messrs. Sheldon and Schwarzbart list the deficiencies of my line of argument. I plead guilty to various simplifications, and would add an additional charge of misdirection, which arises from the most recent development: the Soviet Union’s attempt to intimidate the British, West German, and French governments in the matter of their prospective military sales to China. It is obvious that if the Russians allow themselves such conduct they must be put in their place very firmly, and this indeed can best be done by demonstratively selling to the Chinese precisely what the Russians would seek to deny them. In this case, a short-term diplomatic necessity prevails over the long-run strategic imperative.
Nevertheless, and in spite of all the telling points made by both correspondents, I find that the fundamental conclusions stated in the article stand: first, since our goal in foreign affairs is to preserve open societies abroad for the benefit of our own people and our own values, it follows that strengthening one closed society to weaken another cannot be to our advantage in any fundamental sense. In theory it should not be to our disadvantage, but I fear the temptation of a “balance-of-power” policy abusively transposed from its legitimate context, in which the participants all share the same values and merely fight for marginal advantages. Second, there is the certainty that a more powerful China, better able to contend with the Soviet Union, will also be a China that will have more leverage over the West, precisely because it would have more to offer to the Soviet Union in diminishing its hostility to the latter.
I would also allow myself one contention which does pertain to things Chinese rather than things strategic: Mr. Sheldon endorses Theodore H. White’s claim that the United States could have enjoyed good relations with Peking from the very beginning, in 1949, for the mere price of recognition, thus incidentally averting the wars of Korea and Vietnam. But it seems that the documents (now all declassified) prove otherwise: until June 1950 and the outbreak of the Korean war, the United States kept trying to establish a relationship with the new rulers in Peking and neither recognized nor assisted the government in Taipei. It was Mao and his associates who refused to deal with Washington and not the other way around. This should not be surprising: to consolidate their regime, the Communists set about destroying the (U.S.-oriented) educational and commercial elites, and their internal purposes thus required a break with Washington.
One final point, admittedly of greater relevance to an earlier debate: for years now American academic experts on China have been telling us that the Chinese do not understand or appreciate our notions of democracy and liberty; these experts told us that Chinese society was fundamentally different in being inherently collectivistic, so that the Chinese could not distinguish between individualism (and individual rights) and selfishness. Apparently at least some Chinese in the PRC disagree, and have written words to that effect, in posters not promptly torn down. Can one dare to hope for an open society in mainland China, say as open as today’s Taiwan? If so, both the first and the second of the ultimate objections to the “China card” scheme would of course lose effect.