Washington Post

OpEd article

Now for an Honest Look at China

By Jim Hoagland

Thursday, May 13, 1999 ; Page A27

NATO says it will rain tens of thousands of rockets, bombs and shells on Serbia if they are needed to win the Kosovo war. But none of those deadly munitions is likely to have greater strategic consequence than the misguided missile that destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last week.

The air-launched U.S. rocket blasted a final gaping hole in the shaky foundation of the "strategic partnership" that President Clinton has sought to construct with China's Jiang Zemin. Jiang's refusal to take a call from an apologetic Clinton over their symbolic "hot line" underlines the fragility of that overly personalized attempt to reconcile two historical and political adversaries.

Paradoxically, the diplomatic damage from the attack could yet be turned to useful purpose. It should force the badly needed rexamination of U.S.-Chinese relations that Clinton has resisted at every turn. A new, more realistic basis for a sustainable (if necessarily wary) cooperation now can be established.

And the attack should remind all of the world's major powers, including China and Russia, how dangerous this war has become to their own interests. It should spur them to work seriously to end Serbia's systematic massacre of an ethnic nation. This would allow NATO to stop its bombing.

The initial fallout of the mistaken U.S. targeting is admittedly all cloud and no lining. There is no way to gloss over the personal tragedy this regrettable attack inflicted on the Chinese unfortunate enough to have been in the embassy, and on their families and friends.

But the general Chinese reaction to that loss needs to be carefully analyzed. It comes in two separate if related parts: genuine anger and sorrow over the bombing, and careful, cynical orchestration of those emotions by an aging Communist leadership fearful of losing power. Americans should not underestimate either reaction.

Both emotion and calculation are glimpsed in the shocking images of Beijing students burning the American flag and boisterously hurling bricks through U.S. Embassy windows as Chinese police passively watch.

There should be no surprise at the genuine emotion sparked by the killing of Chinese citizens by U.S. arms, or even at the refusal of many Chinese to believe U.S. explanations of how the accident occured.

China has felt humiliated and abused by militarily superior colonial powers for most of this century. Pride in the country's economic rise in this decade and the return of Hong Kong have mitigated China's deep historical sense of victimization by outside powers, but they have not erased it.

Moreover, China's last serious, costly war -- against U.S.-led forces in Korea -- ended without clear resolution or cathartic vindication for either side. One of the mistakes of those U.S. officials who have rushed to proclaim a strategic partnership with China has been to ignore the residue of that experience for both sides.

American relations with Japan and Germany today illustrate how quickly wartime foes can reconcile and become partners when the political values and interests of former foes become genuinely compatible. There is no immutable hostility in international relations.

But in the case of China and the United States, the same political systems and types of leadership that directed the Korean War are still in place. On the Chinese side, some of the military men who fought the war in Korea are still prominent in government.

China and the United States shared temporary, limited strategic interests during the Cold War. Both faced a general Soviet threat. But today neither interests nor values bind Beijing and Washington together in a relationship strong enough to withstand the shocks of the discovery of wholesale Chinese theft of U.S. nuclear secrets, the mistargeted missile in Belgrade or even the tensions that China's widespread human rights abuses of its own citizens produce.

For all the impressive economic liberalization it has promoted, the Chinese leadership remains totalitarian in outlook and practice. Truth, whether about what is happening in Kosovo or what happened in Tiananmen Square a decade ago, must be controlled and organized to be useful for the party or it is withheld or distorted. Clinton's repeated apologies for the Belgrade error were not relayed to the Chinese people for nearly a week because they did not fit Jiang's purposes.

U.S.-Sino relations cloaked in an illusory "strategic partnership" are hostage to misunderstanding, mishap and manipulation of the kind provoked by the Belgrade embassy bombing. Better for each side to look soberly at the true nature of the relationship and to manage it as a difficult and basically adversarial one, in which principles and respect are more important than flattery.