China threat? It's a blessing

2008-09-19Asia Times

BEIJING - Geography is destiny - perhaps the most inevitable of all. America's power projection throughout the world in the 20th century, after a period of splendid isolation, was first possible because of its borders. It had no enemies pressing on it. It was, and is, sandwiched between two geographically large countries whose economies and populations are tiny compared to those of the US.

Both of them, Canada to the north and Mexico to the south, are America's allies, integrated in a trade agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and with security treaties guaranteeing Washington's safety. They are de facto buffer states, shielding the US. At the time of the Cold War, the Soviet Union shared a small state line with the US, but it consisted of a scarcely populated area, Alaska, far removed from the American heartland. The only real border threat came from Cuba, which in the 1960s almost plunged the US and the USSR into a world war.

However, China is in a very different predicament. Embedded in the heart of Asia, it is bounded by nearly every other country on the continent, large and small. In fact, it is the Asian country with the greatest number of bordering neighbors. China has less than idyllic relations with all of them; it has open border disputes or only recently resolved ones with others. Many are unstable countries; others are ambitiously eyeing China's economic and political growth with fear and suspicion.

Most have a history of vassalage to China, from which they have freed themselves only in the past century because of China's misfortunes. They worry that China, once again a superpower, will try to force them back into their bondage.

Besides the countries bordering China directly, many other states remain heavily influenced by it. Thailand and Bangladesh, for instance, feel the Chinese breathing down their neck, despite a safe distance of a few hundred kilometers from the nearest Chinese frontier. Even Cambodia, more than 1,000 kilometers away from the closest Chinese border, remembers well that in the 1970s it hosted a proxy war between Vietnam and China.

The list of countries directly bordering China exposes Beijing's difficult geographic position. Starting from the northeast and moving counterclockwise, are North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Then, there are the sea neighbors all quarrelling over the disputed Spratlys and Paracel islands. China claims all of them while Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei each claim parts of them. From there we have Taiwan, which is the largest problem of all just because it is not a "neighboring country". Finally, there are Japan and South Korea.

In all, China is surrounded - almost besieged - by 21 states or territories. Of these, at least three are giants: Japan, whose economy is presently larger that that of China's; India, with a fast-growing economy and mushrooming population that will soon outpace China's; and Russia, the old military superpower shaping up to become the energy superpower. None of them houses governments as friendly to China as those of Canada's or Mexico's are to the US.

Beijing presently controls none of its neighbors in the way Moscow used to run its satellites in the Soviet empire. The only two governments allegedly "friendly" to China, North Korea and Myanmar, have proved time and again to be far less obedient than Beijing might wish. The former has tried to stir up a regional fuss by demanding aid in exchange for giving up its military nuclear program; the latter has resisted demands to move towards economic reforms and check drug trafficking.

Yet these two neighbors are but a small nuisance compared with the largest threat posed by giants like Japan, India, Russia or even by smaller but no less ambitious countries such as Vietnam, which had its last border clash with China as recently as 1988. In that small naval skirmish some 80 Vietnamese sailors were killed by Chinese battleships, which were trying to enforce Beijing's claim on some remote South China Sea reefs.

Friends like Pakistan can also be troublesome. In 1998, Pakistan exploded six nuclear devices against Beijing's wishes. The following year, Islamabad started a border war with India in Kargil that quickly escalated, scaring the Chinese into thinking that an all-out conflict might erupt at its southwestern border. Pakistan and India are in fact rival, neighboring nuclear states.

Pakistan for decades has been closer to China, while India feels that China wants to exert pressure on it through Pakistan. A war between these two countries could spin out of control and endanger China's security near its soft underbelly: The restive region of Tibet.

A large dispute could pop up between China and Japan as well over the control of some islands that the Chinese call Diaoyu and the Japanese Senkaku. In the sea around those islands, which are little more than rocks, there are large gas fields, and energy-starved Japan and China are both keen on claiming them. Moreover, old issues of history (ie Japan's invasion of China in 1937), national ambition and pride in both countries make for a potentially lethal combination.

Beyond these are a handful of smaller strategic issues. Maoist guerrillas, ravaging the Chinese border with Nepal, have spilled into India and Bangladesh, destabilizing the countrysides in both places. Ultimately, the guerrillas could move into China. Merciless pirates infest the South China Sea, disrupting the world's busiest supply lines. Heavily armed drug traffickers operate on the border with Myanmar, providing cash and all kinds of smuggled goods to triad gangs infiltrating Chinese society.

In this environment, the dramatic change of status quo, brought on by Chinese economic development, might have sufficed to trigger a gigantic arms race. The resources spent on arms could, under other circumstances, easily outpace economic performance and soon drain national wealth.

That this has not happened is due to China communicating its peaceful intentions and concentration on economic buildup. It has learned from the Soviet Union's lesson: butter before guns. Too much expenditure on arms would lead to economic, social and political collapse. If Beijing were to start a real arms race, its economy could implode in no time, even without any real pressure from abroad.

But, perhaps more importantly, this arms race is not taking place in Asia because the US is providing a common security umbrella, so everyone else can put money to better use.

The US's security umbrella

The case of the American alliance with Japan well illustrates this state of affairs. Washington's commitment to Tokyo is theoretically considered a threat by Beijing. But Beijing is not overly concerned about it and in fact welcomes it. The US military umbrella prevents Japan's re-armament, and, for many reasons, China prefers the "American threat" to the Japanese one.

Without America, Japan would have to secure its own defense and all manner of prejudice and miscalculation could push Tokyo to deploy more weapons than Beijing would be comfortable with. After all, Japan has invaded China; America hasn't. China feels that America's alliance with Japan helps to allay Japan's concerns over China, thus holding Japan's own military spending in check.

The case of Japan also holds true for India. China has not overreacted to the American deal to supply nuclear technology to India (about to be ratified in the US Congress), despite that in 1998 India exploded six nuclear devices, while openly presenting it as a move against the Chinese threat. Beijing may feel that closer military ties between the US and India can help restrain New Delhi's military ambitions.

This pattern is no less true with regard to those countries with which China has friendly relations. For example, South Korea is tempted to become a nuclear power - a temptation that would be stronger without an American presence in the country. Singapore, again a friend of China, would otherwise find its proximity to Malaysia or Indonesia far more worrisome, potentially spreading instability across the South China Sea.

It is hard to believe that in the short term, China would be able to manage its own security in Asia - which is to say the security of the region as a whole - among its motley collection of distrusting neighbors.

On the other hand, the US cordons China's periphery. Besides basing troops in South Korea and Japan, America holds close ties with the Thai military, maintains a large naval base in Singapore and has garrisons scattered throughout Central Asia. Yet its troops are combating fundamentalist Muslim militants who, besides being enemies of the US, are also eager to support their brethren who remain active in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.

America's forward basing might pose a threat to China if Beijing desired to militarily project itself beyond its boundaries. But Beijing does not want to do this and the US presence can be seen just as a form of saving Chin's military expenditures. Deng Xiaoping's old tenet that China must think first of the economy still holds, thanks to the US presence.

The same principle works in reverse: the American presence saves other Asian countries the trouble of worrying about managing China's growth. If one thinks of Asia as a kind of vast engine, with China at its hub, America then acts as a kind of engine oil in the geopolitical machinery, helping relations run smoothly throughout.

Without America, China would have to deal with at least 21 hostile or semi-hostile neighbors, devoid of the old pattern of vassal ties and lacking a cultural mold for new interactions. Similarly, without America, all of Asia would have to conceive a new way of coping with a rising China, with no established multilateral institutions for the purpose and each country too weak to deal with China on a bilateral basis.

America then is good for China and other Asian countries. But the opposite holds true: China's rise is good for the American presence in Asia. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, the US should have pulled out or greatly reduced its presence in Asia.

Without China's ebullient economic and political development, America would have far less cause to maintain a presence in Asia. Asian countries could more easily manage their affairs by themselves, and the US government and businesses would have less reason to be involved on the continent. China's "threat" then

is a blessing for all countries involved; it can be seen as the reason for the peaceful development of the Asia-Pacific region.

This blessing, however, hinges on a delicate balance: a carefully managed distance between China, the US and the other Asian countries. Any imbalance between any two countries could cast a shadow over the entire regional equilibrium. It is not unlike the challenge of keeping the peace in Europe after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, but on a much larger scale. Then add several active nuclear states, several failing states, growing religious fundamentalism, nationalistic movements, exploding wealth, mounting social inequality, rising criminality, etc.

In this situation, a thriving China could be the best possible scenario. However, it is an extremely volatile state of affairs, made all the more so because of China's continuing growth, and this environment cannot last forever. Therefore, China has to take a more active role in the strategic security of the region by actively building a new culture of political relations in Asia and fostering new ties in the region.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's April 11-13 visit to Japan set a new tone for relations with the most sensitive and powerful of China's neighbors. Wen stressed that friendly relations had existed between China and Japan for 2,000 years, and said there had been problems between the two countries only in the past 50 years.

Whether or not this is historically accurate, it is politically momentous. The speech was broadcast live in China, so that the Chinese public could take note of the new official line and learn that anti-Japanese chauvinism is no longer tolerated in Beijing. Japanese parliamentarians applauded, demonstrating Japanese domestic endorsement for the new line of appeasement between the neighbors. Any potential future rightwing Japanese governments, looking to whip up nationalistic sentiments against China, will have to contend with the parliamentarians who applauded Wen's speech.

Roadblocks along the way

Though the trip was saluted as a melting of the ice, we are far from a political spring, let alone a torrid summer, in Sino-Japanese relations. China is making an extra effort in improving relations with all its neighbors, but it will take time to reap significant results. In the meantime, many incidents might upset the intended peaceful course of events.

In a related development, the growing cooperation between China, the US and Japan on North Korea could become a cornerstone of Asian security. Even if the talks fail to scale back North Korean nuclear capabilities, they will have achieved the total political isolation of Pyongyang's regime and begun building confidence on crucial security issues in Asia. This confidence is a strategic capital that can be called on by the three main countries in discussions over other sensitive areas.

It is likely that North Korea will freeze its nuclear development program and will reconsider opening an overland route through the Korean Peninsula to China and then to Russia. In Washington, ambassador Joseph DeTrani, one of the architects of the talks, is confident North Korea can be reined in, and the regime's almost hysterical reaction to the freezing of its assets in Macau in 2006 has proved there is concrete leverage to exert.

These events will have consequences throughout the world.

The growth of China and the Pacific region, and the United States' political involvement therein, increasingly renders the European Union superfluous. Political and economic growth is concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region, while the EU flounders on the periphery. Europeans will need to assess, in light of their geopolitical marginalization, whether the union really serves their interests, or whether they would be better off as separate states.

In time, perhaps 20 to 30 years, a best possible scenario could emerge: China has managed to develop a new approach of regional ties without vassalage, and Asian affairs are more integrated, both politically and economically. Even then, it is hard to imagine that the US will be totally out of the picture. However, it may have eased the cordon around China, scaling down its military presence in the area, and it may have developed better relations with China, thanks to the integration of Taiwan into a greater China.

Thanks to the due revaluation of the yuan, China may well be the largest economy, but the US will still possess the most sophisticated military in the world. Furthermore, because of its complicated geopolitical situation, it is difficult to imagine that China could greatly build up its military without suffering regional blowback. This would void what would by then be decades of efforts at political easement.

Meanwhile, as America's political capital in Asia is rising, that same political capital is being squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here the lingering conflict and the constant bleeding of the pro-American forces in the long term could waste even the political capital America needs in East Asia.

An analysis written by Wang Xiangsui [1] highlights this concern. In "Key Points of Chinese National Security Strategy" [2] he explains that China worries about "power politics as the root threat to world peace and stability". He argues that the US wants to use weapons and military tactics to fight terrorism, while China wants to advance economical and social development "to eliminate the soil for terrorism". The US is worried about "failed or autocratic states"; China wants to develop Asian security agreements between countries to oppose terrorism.

Wang is worried that in so doing the US will fail to restrain terrorism. This defeat will lead to the spread of terrorism while weakening American political capital. China would have nothing to gain in this process. Islamic terrorism threatens China as well and a massive weakening of America could awaken thousands of ghosts throughout Asia, with each nation attending more closely to its security and a resulting arms race and loss of economic growth throughout the region.

So, while treading deftly on a new path of political relations with Asian countries, China and others states must pay special attention to developments in the Middle East. If America does not make major progress there in the next year, then perhaps a new Saddam Hussein - kept on a shorter leash - will be brought in to salvage the situation.

Yet, if the fight against Saddam were to result in bringing in a new Saddam, then the US should perhaps review its quasi-ideological fear of "autocratic regimes". This is already happening. The Arab world is full of autocrats who rule their countries by oppressing their people with America's blessing. But the US's blatant abandonment of former democratic ideals could further convince Islamic terrorists that the US's interests in the Middle East have only to do with oil. This, and the oppressive behavior of the region's US-sponsored dictators, could in turn boost anti-American sentiments.

If, in the Middle East, America remains caught between the Scylla of the autocrats and the Charybdis of the terrorists, Asian countries could soon start thinking of new security arrangements without America. This is a path fraught with risks for all involved: for the US, for China and for the whole of Asia.

1. Retired senior colonel, co-author with Qiao Liang of Chao Xian Zhan (War Beyond Limits).

2. ISPI papers, December 2006. (2008-09-19 Asia Times)


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