Dealing with China

by , March 20, 2005

Let me deal first with an issue raised by a reader who called me Monday morning after hearing a brief synopsis on the radio and asked if I had yet read the long piece in Sunday’s New York Times dealing with assertions from both the Iraqi interim government and the International Atomic Energy Agency that more than a half dozen of Saddam Hussein’s weapons facilities had been looted systematically just after the American invasion. The story expanded considerably on the story that came out last fall about the Al Qaqaa munitions dump being looted during a similar time period – a story that was widely believed to be (and quite likely was) run in part to affect the election by painting the Bush administration policy during the time right after the invasion as incompetent and inattentive to real dangers in Iraq.

"Do you still say the president was lying about WMD?" my friend – he is a friend, although we disagree on a number of issues – demanded. "There’s your precious New York Times with a story about how those weapons were removed before the U.S. inspectors could find them."

So I read the story. Unfortunately for my friend, it didn’t say what he thought, based on a truncated radio piece, it said. The story went on at great length about the likelihood that significant weapons sites had been stripped of "equipment capable of making parts for missiles as well as chemical, biological and nuclear arms." But it also noted that "After the invasion, occupation forces found no unconventional weapons, and C.I.A. inspectors concluded that the effort had been largely abandoned after the Persian Gulf war in 1991."

In other words, those phantom weapons haven’t shown up, and despite a piece by Christopher Hitchens suggesting that the looting had to have been a planned military operation rather than simply the work of looters – as if freebooting looters looking at the possibility of profit couldn’t be more efficient than Saddam’s tired military – there’s nothing really new here, nothing to suggest that Saddam really, truly had all those nasty weapons but moved them to Syria or wherever. If anything it’s more evidence of the poorly planned character of the invasion, which apparently didn’t include plans to secure any suspected weapons sites (or didn’t include enough people to do the job).

CHINA FLEXES MUSCLES

What strikes me as the most important development this last week in the long run, however, comes out of China. China’s rubberstamp national legislature, by a vote of 2,896-0 (with two abstentions) has passed a law authorizing a military attack to stop the island of Taiwan from pursuing formal independence. It is difficult to tell just how genuinely threatening this move is, but it is likely sooner or later to force the United States into some difficult decisions.

That could be doubly difficult because, as Muazzam Gill, vice president of the American Leadership Institute in Orange, CA who writes for UPI and recently returned from a working visit in China, told me, "the United States is so absorbed by Iraq that it is virtually unable to pay close attention to potentially more dangerous situations developing elsewhere."

Any history in this format must necessarily be somewhat truncated, and Chalmers Johnson has covered some of the ground much more extensively in his recent piece. What has people concerned – even those who didn’t go along with the effort by neocons and others to make China the new bogeyman during the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union – is that mainland China has been making significant geopolitical strides, based in part on its truly remarkable recent economic growth in recent years. That means that sometime in the near future the United States could have to decide whether longstanding economic and emotional ties with Taiwan, the Chinese-occupied offshore island, will prevail over its interest in also maintaining relations with mainland China.

Making the wrong decisions could mean involvement in an actual war with China, a war Japan might be involved in and a war the Japan-America alliance (if it comes to that) might very well not win. The first stages would involve military and naval power, so the imperial overstretch apparent with respect to ground troops in Iraq might not come into play immediately. But it could eventually be a factor.

SOME BACKGROUND

When the Kuomintang, or the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, lost the civil war with the communists back in 1949 and occupied the offshore island of Taiwan, the United States backed the regime. Over the years, especially as it adopted market-oriented economic pollicies, Taiwan prospered economically and over the last decade has become increasingly democratic politically.

In real terms Taiwan has long been independent from the mainland. But both sides have played a delicate game of make-believe for decades – the mainland because it believes it will eventually reclaim Taiwan as a province and Taiwan because it long maintained that it was the legitimate government of China and would eventually resume its rightful place in charge.

In recent years, especially as the Kuomintang has lost political power, the Taiwanese Chinese – especially people whose roots are in Taiwan rather than being descendants of Chinese who fled there – seem to have tired of the game and there has been growing sentiment for formal independence. At the same time the mainland, having adopted more market-oriented economic policies without giving up communist political domination, has experienced remarkable economic growth and is starting to flex its political muscles in the region. Reasserting its claim to Taiwan is part of that drive.

China has also essentially taken over ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which ironically enough was formed in large part under U.S. auspices to counter China back in the Cold War days. Under the auspices of ASEAN it is likely to emerge as the leader of an Asian free-trading bloc that could rival the European Union and NAFTA in economic (and political) significance.

TAIWAN DILEMMAS

If China actually takes military action to reclaim Taiwan the United States will face a dilemma. We don’t have a formal mutual defense agreement with Taiwan, but we sell them weapons and have long-standing ties. If Beijing becomes more aggressive, would the U.S. feel obliged to insert itself into the situation?

Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, who is writing a new book on China, told me the current crisis represents "something of a midpoint between mere symbolism and having concrete war plans." But he expects matters to come to a head between China and Taiwan some time in the next decade.

From mainland China’s perspective, the situation on Taiwan – at least as far as the likelihood of peaceful reunification more or less on mainland terms is concerned – is likely to degenerate over the next several years. The Democratic Progressive Party, which ended the Kuomintang’s long monopoly of power in 2000, headed by Chen Shui-bian, a native Taiwanese, is generally favorable to the idea of an independent Taiwan. Chen was re-elected in 2004, but in parliamentary elections in November 2004 his party did less well than expected. So bold statements about independence are likely to go by the boards for a while, but over the longer haul, independence sentiment is almost sure to increase, even as economic ties with the mainland continue to increase.

There is sentiment among both the Democratic Progressives and the Nationalists for eventual reunification under certain circumstances. Taiwanese have been watching carefully how China handles Hong Kong as a test of the notion of "one country two systems." Beijing has generally tried to resist its authoritarian impulses with regard to Hong Kong, but it has not done so consistently, just recently replacing the boss it put in 1997. So the Taiwanese still have some trepidation.

The United States provides another complicating factor. The emotional ties between the United States and Taiwan are probably not as strong as back in the old Cold War days, but they have hardly disappeared. The U.S. doesn’t have a formal defense treaty with Taiwan, but President Bush has hinted that the U.S. would do whatever was necessary to defend the island if the mainlanders tried reincorporation by military force. Whether that would happen in an actual crisis is unknown.

It appears the Taiwanese are acting as if they assume the U.S. will send the cavalry if the mainland ever gets military about reunification, while Beijing doubts if the U.S. would act militarily over what it views as an internal dispute. That leaves all kinds of room for either or both sides to miscalculate.

The United States’ long-standing ties with Japan, which has been a rival with China for regional influence for centuries, complicates the situation. Another complication is that the U.S. is essentially depending on China to bully North Korea into line when it comes to the potential use of nuclear weapons, which gives China considerable leverage over the United States.

Because of sheer numbers and recent economic growth, it seems unlikely that the United States can prevent the emergence of China as at least a regional power, even if it wanted to. Whether it should desire to harness or deter China from becoming more powerful is another question. It seems possible – though perhaps unlikely given the sometimes breathtakingly arrogant way the supposed sole superpower views the rest of the world – that an accommodation that benefits both sides could be worked out. Certainly plenty of U.S. business interests who have a stake in the growing Chinese economy have an interest in a peaceful accommodation rather than increased conflict.

This move by China’s parliament, then, could serve as an early warning that the U.S. could face problems in the Pacific that might make Iraq look easy, at least if it is unwilling to negotiate rather than demand submission.

Read more by Alan Bock