With the conjuction of American recognition of China and China's invasion of Vietnam, American policy toward China began to suffer from one of the bitterest ironies of life and literature: that of obtaining what one asks for, only to find that it is not, after all, what one wants.
To illuminate this point, it may be instructive to summarize briefly the durable elements of U.S. policy on Asia, out of which the hopes and expectations of recent China policy arose.
For more than 100 years, American policy in Asia has rested on two pillars: the desire for access, first for commerce, and later for investment; and the need for partnership with a power willing to bear the military burdens necessary to maintain a favorable economic and political order in the region. In the 19th century, the United States found such partners in other Western powers. Early in the 20th century, Japan succeeded the declining Western powers as America's not-so-silent partner, a fact confirmed in the arrangements of post-World War I conferences. When Japan turned to militarism and conquest in the 1930s, U.S. hopes alighted, at last, on China as the counterfoil to Japanese ambition and the conservator of Asian order. In the course of World War II, that expectation enlarged, for various reasons, to the familiar idea of China as a world power, the leading regional power in Asia and a factor in power and politics at the hightest levels. Cold war, Chinese civil war, Korean War, Vietnam War: These prevented, for 25 years, the post-World War II resumption of the classic-and preferred-pattern of American involvement in East Asia. Only in the last decade have U.S. leaders had the combination of demestic political latitude and personal inclination to correct the aberration in which the United States had maintained significant regional military capability in the Far East rather than relying on some other power.
Over the long run, the United States has demonstrated a clear preference for low military investment in East Asia. Now it is returning to policy more nearly resembling that of the long run than of the recent aberration. Precisely for these reasons, the United States must weight most seriously the questions highlighted in China's Vietham adventure. That invasion raised, but did not answer, questions of the utmost importance for American policy and strategy in the foregoing context.
It is not at all clear how China will employ the influence and military power. For now, China's military affairs are in the greatest imaginable flux. Central questions of defense orientation, weapons procurement, force structure and operational doctrine remain unanswered. Defense matters are inextricably entangled with the erratic wanderings of China's 60-year-old revolution, itself an uncertain enterprise of incredible complexity. But the defense goals of China's ambitious modernam, now under way, are to build a military force with 1970s capabilities by 1985 and to compete with the superpowers by about 2000.
American contributions to the development of China's power will, in retrospect, appear to have been wise or foolish in large measure according to whether the Chinese contribute more to regional order than to disorder, more to the limitation of Soviet power conflict than to the excitation of instability in the political and strategic relations of the great powers. A powerful China may permit and indeed justify reduced American military presence in Asia. Or it may heighten the requirement for stabilizing U.S. deployments in the region. By comparison with the challenges yet to be faced in Asian policy and strategy, those surrounding the recognition issue may seem to have been quite modest.