Wanted: a global balance of power

Asia Times

BEIJING - On September 7 the spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, Zhu Bangzao, departed from the old line of clear opposition to the American National Missile Defense system and limited himself to a softly-worded comment: "China hopes that the US acts cautiously regarding the NMD issue."

He noted contradictions in media reports and official US government comments last week. The US appeared ready to allow China to develop its own limited nuclear strategic force, but it was not clear whether this would include new underground nuclear tests or how big this nuclear force could be.

But from Zhu's comments it is clear that China has noted and welcomed a change of heart by the US administration in its policy on NMD vis-a-vis China. Furthermore, no matter what Washington meant in detail with the statements reported on September 2 on a Chinese nuclear force, there is a new approach by the Bush administration to China.

At this week's meetings at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, China's Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan will have an opportunity to learn more about the United States' intentions. And with the Sino-American summit in October, the public also should have a clearer picture about the extent of the US's offer to China.

In a way, the US proposal to let China develop its nuclear arsenal could be the beginning of a complex policy which overtly takes into account and accommodates China's military growth along with its economic growth. Certainly, the increase of Asian military and political weight in the past decade has been a reality hard to ignore, especially if compared with that of the West. The collapse of the Soviet Union has taken a heavy toll on Russian military might, and, in parallel, European countries have been unwilling to increase their military budgets or try to project their forces even to the nearby Balkans. These are important reasons for the US to switch its focus from the West to the East.

In Asia, where it is hard to find any two neighboring nations without territorial disputes, almost every country has been increasing its military budget, and two states, India and Pakistan, have made the jump to nuclear weapons.

Given this reality, NMD is bound to weigh more in Asia than in Europe, where in any case many countries in the European Union have expressed their objections to NMD. China in particular, for a long time the only nuclear power in the region and the target of vehement rhetoric in the US, felt that NMD was in fact aimed against it. So now the US recognizes China's need to develop its military along with its economy, to keep up with regional developments. On the other hand, the US offer to Beijing would break little ice with other countries in the region if it is not put in the context of a new regional approach.

In Japan, where there are strong anti-nuclear sentiments and a very binding alliance with US, the public could become very nervous about the idea of a larger Chinese nuclear arsenal developed with US consent. In India, which detonated its nukes in 1998 while citing an alleged Chinese threat, and which now supports NMD, public opinion could likewise grow nervous about US blessings for Chinese atomic expansion.

Would China be willing to expand its nuclear forces, knowing that this could be interpreted as saber-rattling and trigger an arms race in the region? Would it be willing to re-start atomic testing in a move that would allow the US, and possibly also Russia, to do so as well?

China so far has been moving in an opposite direction. Whereas the US stressed the importance of military defense against possible threats from "rogue states" such as North Korea, China stressed the need to search for political solutions. The talks at ministerial level between the two Koreas, which will take place this week, are the result of intense negotiations and follow a US green light and President Jiang Zemin's first trip to Pyongyang. China's effort lately has been to try to convince the US and the world to reconsider the so-called North Korean threat, and thus reduce the necessity of a missile shield.

So China could take the US offer as an important gesture, proving that the US is not hostile to China, but Beijing could decide not to expand its nuclear arsenal in return for a scaling-down of NMD. China opposes the principle of an invincible missile shield that would give any US president the power to launch a nuclear attack, or threaten such an attack, without fear of retaliation. In other words, NMD would cancel the balance of power, which is based on a mutual threat, and would in theory put China at the mercy of the US public and administration.

The gist of the US offer now appears to be the recognition of the necessity of a balance of power with China. This in turn can be solved only in the context of a more global balance of power, with a focus not on "rogue states" but on building a new complex equilibrium within a wide Eurasian framework, in which possible rogue states will be heavily influenced. (2001-09-11 Asia Times)


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