Editorial: China and the `nuclear option'

Sat, Aug 11, 2007 - Page 8

Presidential election time in the US may be the season for China-bashing, but it was no less astonishing that such fiery attacks on Beijing this time could come from Democrats, with that party's candidates for the nomination seemingly in a competition to out-hawk each other.

The level of rhetoric was so aggressive and uncompromising that the Republican candidates will be hard-pressed to match it.

For some time the received wisdom has been that the open-ended Iraq War would so dispirit the US public that eventually the very thought of antagonizing China over Taiwanese sovereignty would be political suicide. Instead, at best, the US military would be called on by pro-Taiwan elements in the US government to maintain the line that peace in the Pacific demands that Taiwan stay under Taiwanese control.

In this scenario China would have had the upper hand. But thanks to problems with the safety of food, medical and other exports and its inability to accommodate US objections to the yuan's exchange rate, China may have forfeited this potential advantage forever.

Even more astonishing than the Democrats' new-found bile this week was further evidence that Chinese officials consider the US dollar a potential hostage to its foreign reserves. This development, together with the fact that China will not allow the Beijing Olympic Games to loosen social and political controls, should set off alarms for US strategists.

In 2005, when Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu (朱成虎) said that China should consider attacking the US with nuclear weapons if it defended Taiwan from invasion, his words were dismissed as those of a rogue-like peripheral element that did not reflect the official line.

But the same most certainly cannot be said about Xia Bin (夏斌), He Fan (何帆) and Zhang Ming (張明), finance and economics experts much closer to the Chinese establishment, whose musings on retaliation against the US economy have already been dubbed a "nuclear option."

The most pressing concern, then, is the stupidity of a Chinese government that would induce a collapse of the greenback for political reasons. That this scenario has been so publicly and brazenly aired by experts who have Beijing's ear is ample evidence of the unpredictability -- to put it politely -- of the Chinese government on this issue.

For all the US government has said and done about reinforcing the security of the homeland against the terrorist threat, and for all of the hand-wringing that has accompanied illegal immigration and building fences on a desert border, the grim reality is that Americans are under increasing -- and increasingly acknowledged -- threat from a China that can say "go to hell."

It is this threat, not the generally limited impact of terror cells, that has the potential to hit every American where it hurts the most. The frightening thing is that China appears to revel in a situation in which it is portrayed as powerful enough to hurt people on whom it relies for growth and accumulating wealth.

No matter how much reform it may undertake, the Chinese government is proving itself incapable of shaking historical grudges -- and more than capable of repositioning those grudges from the enemies of the past to enemies of the future.

So the question must be asked: How many warnings on Chinese aggression must the US government receive before it talks and acts like it is dealing with a hostile power?