Proxy Wars

The U.S. is confronting China with a variety of issues this coming week as Condoleezza Rice makes her first East Asia appearance as secretary of state. Most of these issues are old problems – namely human rights, the Taiwan Straits, North Korea, and the trade deficit, among others.

But the recent joint statement after the 2+2 meeting between U.S. and Japanese ministers changed the dynamic of the problems facing Sino-U.S. attempts at finally creating a "strategic partnership." As did North Korea’s February admission that they did indeed possess nuclear weapons.

It should be clear by now that a strategic partnership between the U.S. and China is not a short- or even mid-term possibility in East Asia.

Economically, things couldn’t be more robust: Americans still order Chinese goods by the boatload – such that neither nations’ ports can handle the traffic and now Lenovo is (almost) cleared to buy IBM’s laptop division. Services and investment, takeovers and joint ventures – the air is thick with money, and both Americans and Chinese are busy snapping it up.

But money can’t buy you love. And there remains a decided lack of love in East Asia between the two main powers bordering the Pacific.

Proxy #1

Nowhere is this contradiction more clear than with Japan. Chinese love the Japanese style – the high socks with the skirt and pig tails for the girls, and the sculpted dyed "wild" look for the fellas. Musically, Chinese pop stars are lagging behind most others in East Asia – the underground in China is a different story, but where do they get those ideas for a punk band and a hip-hop group? Who are the models?

Koreans and Japanese for the most part. There are 100,000 Japanese in Shanghai, and they brought their food, music, and culture with them – rarely does one hear of Sino-Japanese street brawls or overt confrontation of any kind. On the contrary, Japanese electronics and Chinese factories are quite happy with the relationship they have built. Outside of Taiwan and Hong Kong, Japan is China’s most important and most stable economic ally.

But ask the man on the street what he thinks of the Japanese, read a Chinese (or Japanese) history book, visit Nankjing, check out what the People’s Liberation Army or the foreign ministry have to say about Japan. Play football with a bunch of Japanese against a bunch of Chinese.

A beautiful development lies with the youth on both sides and the bonds built over years of contact – Buddhist enthusiasts from the islands smile together with curators at Dunhuang‘s glory in Gansu province. But, in general, there is still very little love.

For the Chinese, it’s all about WWII and it always will be. For the Japanese, it may be a little more complicated – a bit of racism perhaps, and a little annoyance with Beijing’s constant blustering and a resurgent right in Koizumi’s Liberal Democrat Party – a party dedicated to bringing Japan back into the fold of "normal" countries. Which means a new constitution and with it a new policy toward neighbors like China, Taiwan, and the Koreas.

And this is the crux – for Japan to become normal again, it means receiving U.S. "permission" to change the constitution. And more importantly, for the Japanese, an overhaul of the current security agreement in which U.S. military bases are scattered throughout the Japanese islands, causing problems and infuriating the locals.

Japan may be viewed by many as the Britain of the Far East – a lapdog of American imperial and/or national security interests, but perhaps Germany would be a more interesting comparison. There are still quite a few U.S. military personnel in Germany, and Germany’s economic rise was facilitated by U.S. cash – as was Japan’s. But it was the blood and sweat of Germans and migrant populations that turned Germany into the number-one exporter and inventor in the world. The U.S. just provided the market.

Germany is also the engine and de facto leader of Europe (if there is one). Japan has gone through a very similar process – from devastated defeated fascist Empire to the center of all electronic production and the largest economy in Asia.

Britain is a has-been with historical ties to the U.S. Perhaps the U.S. sees Britain as something of a role model/father/example of what Empire was and what it can become.

After Germany reached "economic independence," the security relationship between the two remained viable as long as the USSR remained a threat – splits over selling arms to China and the War on Terrorism are the end-result of U.S. efforts to turn Germany into a proxy.

Proxy #2

When North Korea shoots off at the mouth, yelling out "no hostile intentions" and "grave grim dire consequences for all" – Condi Rice says she won’t play North Korea’s game. But only after labeling them and several other nations (Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Iran) "outposts of tyranny."

Most every article out there on the problems facing the multi-nation talks and North Korea’s nuclear activities mentions China’s "significant leverage" and U.S. frustration with China’s seeming inability to coerce the North Koreans to see sense.

Please. Every time North Korea spits some venom, China suppresses a chuckle. Nothing could be more convenient for China than to wrap up the U.S. and Japan in a cloth made of destitute North Koreans, their random threats, and their ever changing attitudes toward the multi-nation talks. While the U.S. stretches itself thin all over the planet, China barrels ahead making that money – money that will eventually find itself in the pockets of European arms manufacturers.

Naturally, crazy broke North Koreans with their fingers on The Button is something to worry about – and this is where China’s leverage comes in. Any weapon the North Koreans have, including a SCUD derivative recently discovered and discussed by Jane’s, came from China. If these weapons were to actually be used, it would be Hu, not Kim, who would give the go-ahead.

Does China want war? The answer for the next few years is a definite "no." An emphatic "no." Too much is riding on the Chinese people and their pocketbooks to get involved in any conflict now. Any roaring done by the dragon is but protocol – the unfortunate protocol of nation-to-nation dialogue.

Could China ever use North Korea if it came to a conflict?

If the conflict were, say, in the Taiwan Straits and the adversary happened to be a joint U.S.-Japanese force hell-bent on "keeping the peace," who knows?

Defusing a Proxy

Proxies are shadows, the smoke and mirrors put up by a force behind the curtains to confuse and distract. Proxies are doomed, expendable, and dangerous – a liability when the winds of change blow.

Proxies only have power if they are viewed as moving bodies and not bodies being moved.

The Bush administration’s policy of "making the world democratic" invites competitors to create shadows in need of democracy – phantom menaces that lead to flocks of wild geese and not much more. The U.S. could ignore North Korea and instead concentrate on what it is exactly that defines the U.S.-Japan alliance and build upon it. It would relieve a lot of U.S. officials of North Korea-induced heartburn, if nothing else.

For China, the more the U.S. follows the smoke and gets lost in the mirrors, the better.

Read more by Sascha Matuszak