Fri, Aug 18, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Sick Man of Asia no more

Most people would like to see a reduction in tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

The outdated "Taiwan Crisis," as many news wires and think tanks melodramatically call a "dispute" that is usually quite boring, is generally cited as potentially one of the most explosive conflicts in Asia, if not the world.

Dramatizing China-Taiwan relations is all well and good for people trying to sell books championing policy proposals that are so unrealistic as to sound like parody (think Ted Galen Carpenter's America's Coming War with China, which essentially advocates a complete US withdrawal from all of Asia to stop the "coming war").

But when senior diplomats from the countries involved sensationalize the issue, people must first let their shock at the official's irresponsibility and callousness subside, before trying to determine what the motivation was.

Yesterday, China's ambassador to the UN, Sha Zukang (沙祖康), let loose with a hyperbolic tirade during a BBC interview that was shocking in its carelessness and lack of humanity.

"The China population is six times or five times that of the United States," Sha said. "Why blame China? [for it's rising defense spending] ... It's better for the US to shut up and keep quiet. It's much, much better."

Later, with regard to what China would do if Taiwan declared independence, he added: "We will do the business at any cost," which one can only assume means going to war.

"It's not a matter of how big Taiwan is, but for China, one inch of the territory is more valuable than the life of our people. We will never concede on that," Sha said.

Now, there isn't much here that hasn't been said before. Chinese military officers and academics often make threats of dire consequences if Taiwan declares independence.

There is little need to address the ambassador's emotionally charged ranting.

Obviously people aren't concerned about the relationship between defense spending and demographics: They're concerned about sudden and substantial increases in military spending by authoritarian states with a history of internal and external violence.

What is most shocking in this case is the fact that this was not a retired colonel writing a paper in an obscure Chinese defense journal; this was Beijing's envoy to the UN being interviewed by one of the most influential news agencies on the planet.

Why would he say such things now? The Taiwanese government hasn't done anything "provocative" lately. US-China relations aren't particularly bad at present, although they have been gradually worsening throughout the Bush administration.

Contrast these comments with recent events in Taiwan. Efforts to liberalize cross-strait trade restrictions are finally gaining momentum. Meanwhile, pro-unification supporters are in ascendancy as the ruling party implodes over a flurry of scandals.

So what do Sha's comments mean?

They mean that the world needs to be very alarmed. No one questions that China is a rising power. But there are a lot of people who are convinced that all China wants is a little respect: If they treat it like a responsible country, it will act like a responsible country. This is a mistake.

Beijing is not responsible. Tired of being the "Sick Man of Asia" that it was for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, China has been self-medicating with the only narcotic it knows: ethnic nationalism.

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