ANOTHER CHINA: Toward a new world order

2001-02-10Asia Times

BEIJING - Beijing this week declared its opposition to US anti-missile plans and its confidence that India will not allow foreign forces to use the exiled Karmapa Lama, Tibet's third-highest priest, against China.

It is no accident that China, with its carefully orchestrated rhetoric, presented the two issues together. Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi, in his regular press conference, explained that the US defense plans would destroy the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and thus "annihilate the whole structure of strategic stability and create prerequisites for a new arms race". Sun's concern about the US and his faith in India are two sides of the same coin. "China hopes that India will strictly observe its commitment to further improve China-Indian relations," said Sun.

So far, China has been quite happy with New Delhi's handling of the delicate issue of the 17th Karmapa Lama, who fled Tibet and reached India in January 2000. Once in India, the Karmapa was not used by the Indian government or the foreign press to fuel anti-Chinese propaganda. Now, after more than a year, India will grant the Karmapa refugee status, but Beijing does not expect this to change New Delhi's general handling of the whole issue.

Like China, India is concerned about US plans to build a National Missile Defense (NMD) system. New Delhi has ambitions to become a world power, and in 1998 exploded its first nuclear devices. Just last month, it successfully tested its new intermediate ballistic rocket. Sun did not mention Indian concerns over NMD, but the message was clear.

Since the 1970s, when US President Richard Nixon came to China, Beijing's foreign policy has revolved around the US. The US is the key to resolving the issue of Taiwan, it is the greatest superpower, but it is also the one country that China trusts the most.

The US came to China's aid during the difficult years of the Cultural Revolution, and it opposed China's partition after World War II, contrary to the wishes of the Soviet Union and Great Britain. The US had also strongly backed China in its long anti-Japanese struggle. In many ways modern China owes a lot to the US, and China is a country that does not forget easily.

Other major countries have tried to take advantage of China, like France, which continued occupying Indochina after World War II, Britain, which held on to Hong Kong until 1997, and the USSR, which bossed China around until 1960. Other developing countries like India were in the background of Beijing's foreign policy. They did not really count, as they did not have the strength to withstand pressure from major powers. Furthermore, many Chinese felt Indians had an ax to grind with China.

India was defeated by China in a short but violent border war in 1962, and since then it has had a hang-up over the matter. Beijing, on the other hand, felt India was backing the cause of independence for Tibet, and thus implicitly siding with those foreign forces working on splitting China.

At present, however, the US plans for NMD are implicitly aimed at China, the only sizeable potential enemy of the US. From China's perspective, there are no other serious future enemies of the US in sight. Europe and Japan are hooked on US defense, Russia is too poor even to keep its present nuclear arsenal, and the so-called rogue states represent a minimal threat to US security.

Arguably, this leaves China standing alone, and NMD could challenge it to embark on an arms race with the US, with the threat of bankruptcy as happened to the USSR in the 1980s. In a way, India is in the same position. Its economy is showing signs of growth, its military ambitions are surfacing, and its sentiments of independence remain strong.

NMD seems to propose that developing countries should grow economically but not militarily, and thus remain geopolitical dwarfs. But for countries like China and India, economic development serves the purpose of political independence, and a growing economy is necessary to gain political leverage.

NMD in theory eliminates the idea of balance of power, which has been the basis of international politics in modern times. It gives all the power to the US and reduces potential giants like China and India once again to geopolitical midgets.

Therefore, Beijing implicitly signals that NMD draws China and India together, that NMD threatens both countries' ambitions of raising their international voices. Besides, China now trusts India more than in the past. Beijing could be approaching a U-turn in its long-term foreign doctrine, no longer focusing on the US if Washington goes ahead with its NMD plans and if India really warms to China.

There is still a great distance between China and India, as there are still years before the actual deployment of an effective US anti-missile shield.

The US could deploy persuasive political arguments along with NMD, checking much of the worldwide opposition to its defense plans. This would also hinder on-going China-India rapprochement. And US arguments could, once again, reassure Beijing about the US. This would be the best solution for Beijing, which doesn't want to break with America, the country it admires so much.

On the other hand, the new drawing together of China and India, home of some 40 percent of humanity, can happen only if both are on an equal footing. China claims this already exists, and New Delhi complains that it does not.

Many intermediate positions can take shape in the next few years, depending on developments in the US. But certainly both the possibility of a totally unbreakable defense system and the possible concentration of almost 40 percent of the world's population in a two-country alliance is something the world has never experienced. There is no historical guidance as to the consequences.

(Special to Asia Times Online)

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