The US cannot appease the Chinese

By Li Thian-hok 李天福  / 

Thu, Apr 07, 2011 - Page 8

According to George Washington University professor Charles Glaser (“Will China’s Rise Lead to War?” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2011), prospects for avoiding war between the US and China are good. Conventional Chinese assault on the US homeland is virtually impossible owing to the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and vice versa. Even if Chinese power were to surpass US power, the US can deter Chinese nuclear attack by maintaining survivable retaliatory nuclear forces. The US has the option of not responding to China’s modernization of its nuclear force. This restraint will make China feel more secure, thereby enhancing US security.

Glaser believes war or peace is shaped by general patterns of international politics as much as idiosyncratic factors such as “China’s unique qualities, past behavior and economic trajectory.”

However, his discussion focuses narrowly on national security concerns. By ignoring China’s history, its economic policy, domestic politics and other relevant factors and applying international relations theory in an oversimplified manner, Glaser arrives at policy prescriptions that will increase the chance of a nuclear attack on the US homeland, the exact opposite of his objective.

Glaser analyzes Sino-US relations solely on the basis of national security. In fact, Sino-US relations have many facets, economic, political and military. Focusing on military issues alone has led to misreading Chinese intentions.

China is advocating its model of governance — a combination of managed capitalism and one-party authoritarianism — as a more efficient alternative to a Western-style free market economy and democracy. China expends vast sums in this ideological competition, including funding dozens of Confucius Institutes on US college campuses and the publication of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) paper the Global Times in the US.

China implements a mercantilist trade policy and artificially sets a low value on its currency to promote exports, thus creating a large US trade deficit with China year after year. This beggar-thy-neighbor policy has resulted in steady transfer of US wealth to China. China is aided in this effort by US multinational corporations and Wall Street firms, which are lured by the vast Chinese market and China’s cheap labor.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been modernizing at a rapid pace. China’s defense spending has increased by double-digit percentages annually since the late 1990s. The PLA has mastered the C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) system of joint force fighting. Its modernization is not limited to the development of anti-access, area denial weapons against US forces, but also cyber war and space war capabilities. The PLA has demonstrated its ability to shoot down US military satellites. In cyber warfare, the wartime objectives include paralyzing an adversary’s information and communication systems, and destruction of financial data and infrastructure such as power grids and water supplies.

Given China’s multi-pronged efforts to compete with the US, it is not prudent to blithely assume that China’s intentions will always be peaceful.

By excluding Chinese history from his analysis, Glaser also misjudges the motives behind China’s behavior. China’s military modernization is not primarily motivated by its insecurity, as Glaser asserts. China is not threatened by the US or any of its neighbors.

The CCP abhors Western democracy as alien to Chinese culture and contrary to Chinese imperial and hierarchical tradition, which posits that China is the Middle Kingdom destined to rule all barbarians (ie, all non-Chinese states). China’s national mission is to regain its rightful place as the dominant superpower so the nation may cleanse itself of the humiliation at the hands of the West for a century after the Opium War. This strident nationalism is nurtured by “patriotism education” fed to every school child and reinforced by the media’s anti-Japanese and anti-US reporting.

This is why the PLA has been modernizing at a furious pace. Beijing also wants to develop the capacity to overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses rapidly before the US can intervene.

In his analysis of US-China relations, Glaser also ignores China’s social instability. There is widespread resentment of the CCP owing to official corruption, environmental degradation and confiscation of rural land with token compensation. In 2005, there were 87,000 cases of social unrest. This year’s budget for the People’s Armed Police exceeded that of the PLA for the first time.

In dealing with Beijing, Washington should not assume that the CCP is equivalent to the nation of China, or that the CCP regime will last for many decades. To avoid war with China, the US needs to steer China toward political reform, rule of law and democracy. A government that is held accountable by the electorate is more likely to improve the people’s livelihood and less prone to military aggrandizement and territorial expansionism.

Glaser asserts that China has limited territorial aims and therefore concessions on territory China regards as its core interest will assure peace. In reality, China has expansive territorial ambitions and unilateral concessions will be conducive to war by whetting China’s appetite.

Historically, China has always followed a policy of territorial expansion when it was powerful. During the reign of Qing dynasty Emperor Kangxi (康熙), Chinese territory encompassed Outer Mongolia and a vast expanse of present-day Far Eastern Russia, while China exercised suzerainty over Korea, Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) and parts of Taiwan.

Today, China claims the whole of the South China Sea as its core interest, even though the islands therein are also claimed by neighboring nations. China has a dispute with Japan and Taiwan over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known in Japan as the Senkaku islands, and with India over Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Kashmir. Once a PLA admiral suggested to the head of the US Pacific Command that the US should withdraw to Hawaii, leaving the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii to Chinese control.

The rise of China poses grave challenges to US national security. To keep the peace, the US must face this reality, discard the culture of excessive deference to Beijing’s wishes and implement policies to maintain military superiority, both conventional and nuclear, including cyber war and space war capabilities; reduce the persistent trade deficit and stanch the flow of US wealth to China; steer China toward democratization by engaging Chinese civil groups that favor democracy and by preserving Taiwan’s freedom as a model for China to follow; strengthen regional alliances, particularly with Japan and South Korea; and engage China in economic and strategic dialogue, to promote fair trade and to avoid misunderstanding.

On the issue of Taiwan, Glaser says that a crisis over Taiwan could easily escalate to nuclear war and the US should back away from its commitment to Taiwan, saying such accommodation would smooth the way for better relations with China “in the decades to come.”

The vast majority of the 23 million residents of Taiwan regard themselves as Taiwanese and they overwhelmingly reject Chinese annexation of the nation. The Taiwanese have built a thriving democracy through the sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives over many decades and they will be loath to lose their freedom.

China wants to acquire Taiwan for two main reasons: Taiwan’s democracy is a threat to the CCP’s autocratic and repressive rule, and China needs Taiwan as a military base from which to project power into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Taiwan’s situation is precarious. The military balance has clearly shifted in favor of China. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) term ends at the end of next year and he plans to complete the annexation of Taiwan before then. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is actively collaborating with the CCP to accomplish this goal, by signing a peace (read surrender) accord with Beijing. Because the KMT controls both the executive and legislative branches of government and the mass media, Taiwan’s citizens have little leverage to resist this momentum toward absorption by China.

If Taiwan were to fall by PLA coercion or internal subversion, the US would suffer a geostrategic disaster. The sea-lanes and airspace around Taiwan are critical to the survival of Japan and South Korea. Once in control of Taiwan, China would be in a position to pressure Japan and South Korea to become its vassal states. With the demise of the US-Japan military alliance, the US would be forced to retreat all the way back to Hawaii. With the combined strength of the world’s second and third-largest economies, it would not be unrealistic for China to aspire to become the world’s greatest superpower within two decades.

The acquisition of Taiwan will propel China toward expansionism and eventual conflict with the US.

“Taiwan’s security is ultimately America’s security as well,” to quote late New York congressman Gerald Solomon.

So what can the US do to avoid a seminal geostrategic failure in Asia and beyond, given the increasingly difficult task of preserving Taiwan’s freedom? US President Barack Obama’s administration needs to promptly take the following steps: Reiterate the US policy that the future of Taiwan must be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the Taiwanese people; deploy sufficient naval and air forces in the Western Pacific to deter Chinese aggression, as mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act; warn the Ma government that signing a peace accord without an internationally supervised referendum would not be acceptable to the US (the Republic of China government has no valid sovereignty over Taiwan and Washington has a right to intervene because it was US forces that liberated Taiwan from Japanese colonial rule); initiate high-level military exchanges with Taiwan to facilitate joint military planning; and speed up the sale of F-16C/D fighters and other weapons most useful in resisting a PLA invasion.

In conclusion, Glaser’s analysis of Sino-US relations is faulty because the Western notion of rational international politics does not fit Chinese behavior, which is characterized by irrational chauvinism, political theater and deception. As American Enterprise Institute academic Dan Blumenthal said, Glaser’s theory has actually been tested by the Obama administration, which made concessions to Beijing and adopted de facto abandonment of Taiwan. However, instead of making reciprocal friendly gestures, China became more aggressive toward Japan, the ASEAN and South Korea, and Sino-US relations deteriorated.

Glaser’s paper has stimulated a great deal of discussion. Hopefully, it will prompt the US to seriously and correctly respond to the many challenges presented by a rising China.

Li Thian-hok is a distinguished fellow of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.