April 20, 2004 - Vol. 130 - Number 45

Speaker ponders China's future

THE REVIEW/Jamie Edmonds

Former defense secretary William Perry explains the changing dynamics of China's role in the international community.


Staff Reporter

A former secretary of defense warned that China could face great difficulties in the next decade that would threaten recent increasingly positive Sino-American relations.

William Perry, secretary of defense during the first Clinton administration, highlighted three possible scenarios that would endanger the stability of the Chinese government and harm diplomacy to approximately 340 people in Mitchell Hall Wednesday during this week's installment of the Global Agenda lecture series.

Perry said China has improved remarkably in the past 20 years, weathering international economic problems and reaching out to other countries.

"They've established harmonious relations with their neighbors for the first time in decades," he said, "and have worked to become a responsible member of the international community including membership in the World Trade Organization."

Perry said his view of the last three decades in Sino-American relations have been positive, but he would not say that will necessarily hold true for the future.

Three situations would challenge this prosperity.

"What if Taiwan declared independence, and the Chinese government responded with military action?" he said.

"The second one is what if North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear weapons program, conduct atomic bomb tests, and the United States responded with military action?

"Finally, what if the economic growth that China has enjoyed for the past three decades stalled, with unemployment and the economic consequences so severe the Chinese government is then destabilized?"

Perry said Taiwan had recently shown preliminary signs of declaring independence.

"Their push last month for a referendum was a dangerous step in the direction of a formal declaration of independence," he said, "and I truly believe that a declaration of independence would result in military action."

Fortunately, he said, the referendum was not passed but its main supporter, the president of Taiwan, was narrowly reelected, keeping the issue unresolved.

Perry believes tensions between China and Taiwan will be resolved peacefully due to rapid economic, cultural and social integration.

"I believe that the political integration will follow in time," he said, "provided both governments are patient and allowing the integration process to proceed at its own pace."

North Korea, Perry said, has aspired to have nuclear weapons for more than 20 years.

Pakistani scientists, he said, sold technology and materials to North Korea for a comprehensive nuclear program.

"It is certain that they have 8,000 rods of spent fuel for a reactor," he said. "It is certain they have the capabilities to reprocess the fuel, giving them the enough plutonium to make about six nuclear bombs."

Despite China's intercession and regional countries meeting for diplomatic discussion, the results of these talks are of questionable relevance.

"The United States is willing to meet with North Korea," he said, "but it is still not clear if our government is willing to negotiate with them.

"And while North Korea is willing, even eager, to meet with the United States, it is still not clear that the North Koreans are really willing to give up their nuclear weapons program."

He said North Korea holds on to its nuclear weapons for protection out of fear of a preemptive attack from the United States.

"It is because of the North Korea's nuclear weapons program that they have anything to fear from the United States," Perry said.

Lastly, China could face problems if its prosperous economic development were to slow down, Perry said.

The communist government, he said, is unable to justify itself on ideology anymore and is maintained public support solely through delivering growth.

"It's successful," he said. "In fact, each year for the last 20 years or so they've had about 8 to 10 percent growth. And so the increasing standard of living in the population has caused the population to support the government."

The country suffers from vast unemployment, Perry said, especially farther away from the coastal cities.

"Already unemployment there is serious enough that millions, literally millions of Chinese, have migrated from those inland regions seeking work in the coastal cities, which are relatively prosperous," he said.

Despite these fears, Perry is confident China can remain stabilized, given its excellent track record for handling difficult international and domestic situations.

Ralph Begleiter, distinguished journalist in residence and moderator of the Global Agenda series, said experience was the key to choosing a speaker for the event.

"I knew that he had a special role on China," he said, "not only in government, although it was a special role in government, he was the first one to open up and sign this agreement with the Chinese military, but also after leaving government he continues to be sent as an emissary from the United States to China."

Freshman Karron Doers said she felt Perry was very thorough and left an open forum for questions.

"What I found most interesting was the comments on North Korea's nuclear weapons and the steps that would actually occur as a result of these actions," she said. "I think all the information he presented on that was very interesting because I had no idea about it."

Copyright 2003 The Review.