China: Surrounded again

2002-06-20Asia Times

BEIJING - It could be China's worst nightmare coming to life.

Last week Yasuo Fukuda, chief cabinet secretary of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, questioned the principles banning Japan from producing and possessing nuclear weapons. The media attacked him, but Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi came to his defense.

Fukuda is only the latest in a series of increasingly vocal politicians challenging Japan's pacifist constitution (see "Koizumi under a nuclear smokescreen (" in Asia Times Online, June 13). Last month, deputy chief cabinet secretary Shinzo Abe attacked the pacifist constitution, claiming that Japan could possess "small" nuclear weapons and that nothing stood in the way against ballistic missiles. A few months earlier influential opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa said that Japan could easily go nuclear if China continued to threaten Japanese territory. And recently, Tokyo's nationalist mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, thanked Fukuda personally for his "courageous" remarks about nuclear weapons.

So talk of rearming Japan is no longer taboo, and the United States, concerned about sharing the burden of regional security, no longer discourages the notion of Japanese rearmament, and may even discreetly encourage it.

This could bring about a revolution in Chinese security doctrine. For more than half a century China has seen the US presence in Japan as a measure to prevent Japanese rearmament. The US was in charge of security for Japan and therefore Tokyo had no need to become a nuclear power or embark on a large rearmament program that China dreaded. While the US presence next to China's coast was a threat, it was a small price to pay for the disappearance of a much bigger threat - a bellicose Japan. However, this would no longer be the case if the US maintained its military presence in Japan while Tokyo rearmed.

This predicament is even more ominous in the perspective of Russia's recent agreement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As NATO is led by the United States and Japan has for decades been America's stalwart ally in Asia, Russia's agreement with NATO could close a huge gap in the Eurasian continent, bridging the European NATO on the Far West with Japan and South Korea on the Far East.

In a separate development, the terrorist attack against the US consulate in Karachi has helped ease the tension between India and Pakistan. The attack showed that even Pakistan is a victim of terrorist attacks, and is not simply a base for anti-Indian terrorist activities. Although there are still suspicions about the role that some factions of the Pakistani secret service might have played in planning the attack against the consulate, the attempt proved that militant terrorists were ready to strike Pakistan as well as India. This brought about further appeasement with India, although the forces working for war are still active. The appeasement reinforces the US position in the region.

India for a couple of years has been trying to woo the US, and some Americans have seen India as a possible counterweight for China in Asia. This convergence was halted by the US-led war against al-Qaeda, in which Pakistan, which had long held the keys to Afghanistan, was more useful than India. After the demise of the Taliban and the terrorist attack on the New Delhi parliament, the US seemed to be swinging back in favor of India. But the Indo-Pakistani tension and the movement of Pakistani troops away from the Afghan border into Kashmir reminded the US of the importance of Pakistani support. Subsequently the US has been playing a paramount role in mediating the Kashmir dispute, while China, which is still influential in Pakistan, has preferred to stay on the fringes, with the result that the US role in the subcontinent has been reinforced. It is still too early to speak of major political breakthroughs for the US in South Asia and it is still difficult see how Washington can maintain good ties with both Islamabad and New Delhi. But certainly US diplomacy made substantial advances in the subcontinent unmatched by China.

Whereas Washington has been speaking to both Islamabad and New Delhi, Beijing has been less vocal with Islamabad and far less present in New Delhi. To an even greater degree, the same is true in Central Asia, where the US and its allies have established sound footholds all over the region. A look at the map will show that to an extent not seen since the time of Mao Zedong, China is surrounded.

It is true that since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, China has made inroads in Southeast Asia. It has been pulling the train of the Asian economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and in South Korea; it has also been toying with the idea of a common economic market in East Asia and with Russia and the four former Soviet republics in Central Asia. But besides increased investment and trade ties, the prospects for free-trade areas are mired in a deluge of administrative and legal obstacles, and China's neighbors are haunted by the specter of being flooded by cheap Chinese goods that would put many of their companies out of business.

Meanwhile the US is there, backed, through NATO, by its European allies plus Russia, by Japan and new and old ties all over the continent.

The picture for China is not rosy - it needs to develop a bold new strategy before the noose starts to tighten. Such a strategy would have two aspects, geopolitical and ideological.

On the geopolitical front, China could use its good relations with Thailand to improve relations with the US, Japan and India, which are crucial to its security. But geopolitics is not enough, as the main bias against China is ideological. To deal with that, Beijing would need to launch a long-term plan for democratization, one that took into account the need for stability while responding to the global concern for political predictability in the still mysterious Chinese political system.

Furthermore, China must find a concrete field for collaboration. In the wake of the Tiananmen crisis in 1989, China's support was needed in the war against Iraq, so Beijing was able to trade its support for an easing of the international sanctions imposed on it after the Tiananmen crackdown. Similarly last year, after months of tension with the US, Beijing offered its support in the war against terrorism in return for sweeping under the carpet the many troubles it had had with Washington.

However, the availability of such political exchanges is far less obvious in the current situation. There remains one possibility. The US is concerned about the spread of organized crime and drug trafficking, and the notorious Golden Triangle is still a trouble spot. Here China, perhaps in cooperation with Thailand, could take action. (2002-06-20 Asia Times)


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