Concern over China's human rights record, growing economic development, activity and influence in American politics, and the fate of Hong Kong under Chinese rule, Ross said, have helped create an impression that China is America's foremost post-Cold War adversary.
But this perception is a flawed one, Ross argues in his recent book The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China's Search for Security , authored with Columbia University political science professor Andrew Nathan. China is more of a regional than world power, the authors claim, and a vulnerable one at that, beset by potential internal and external security problems.
Prof. Robert Ross (Political Science)-"The most effective way to deal with China is through economic development, trade and research exchange." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The US should resist an alarmist stance, Ross and Nathan say, avoid an ideological policy and take a realistic approach in considering its and China's strategic interests.
The Great Wall was in the making for some years, Ross says, so the fact it has been published during a period when China is receiving such intense scrutiny was a fortunate coincidence.
"The timing does help, because even before we began writing the book there was an exaggerated view of China's power and its destabilizing behavior," Ross said. "The more recent events, such as 'Donorgate,' have only added to that overstatement. The fact is, although there are legitimate issues to raise about China, it has moved faster politically, economically and socially than anyone else in the past 21 years with such a large population.
"The most effective way to deal with China is through economic development, trade and research exchange," he said. "Denial of trade is counter-productive, because it will lead to more repressive Chinese leadership and actually hurt American interests, since their big businesses employ many Americans."
In The Great Wall , Ross and Nathan provide a brief overview of China's geographical, demographic, socio-political and historical characteristics, then explore the trends which have shaped Chinese domestic and foreign policies in detail. The book covers, for example, Chinese relations with Taiwan and its other immediate neighbors - one of the most important influences, given that it shares borders with 14 states. It also looks at Chinese economic initiatives and the ever-changing interaction among China, the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War.
China's emergence, while remarkable, must be viewed in perspective, Ross said. Despite China's drive to build its military capability, he noted, it still has far to go to match that of Japan - and even farther to rival the US and its allies - and its standard of living and technological resources are also significantly behind that of the US. With the exception of the Taiwan situation, he said, China has achieved most all of its goals in securing its borders.
These factors mitigate against the idea of China as "a rogue state," Ross said. "The best way for China to achieve its economic growth is through offering a peaceful environment, one that attracts investment. So it would tend not to act provocatively, especially because it is fairly content with what it has in terms of security."
Human rights is "a complex, divisive issue," said Ross. China can and should be criticized for its violations and its performance in Hong Kong will bear watching, but the US and other countries display an often inconsistent attitude on human rights, he said.
"I don't know of many Third World nations that are soft and friendly," Ross said. "Dissidence is only one aspect of human rights. We are asking China to hold to standards we seem to have for few countries. Americans tend to focus more on China and Tiananmen Square than on, say, Burma. Yet China has a better human rights record than Saudi Arabia or Pakistan."
While "Donorgate" - allegations of illegal or improper political contributions from Chinese representatives - is not covered in The Great Wall , Ross said the controversy also reflects the tendency to overly scrutinize China.
"The facts are still unclear, but Donorgate says more about the nature of American politics," he explained. "Taiwan has been successful in lobbying and developing ties here, and Americans have been telling mainland China they need to do the same. They tried, but they just didn't do a very good job.
"It's unfortunate, because the whole thing has essentially put President Clinton's China policy on hold," Ross added. "Again, the US needs to take a good, careful look at what China is, and what it isn't."
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