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Monday, Oct. 25, 2004

China reconstructs past to chart future

NEW DELHI -- How folklore guides Chinese foreign-policy interests was brought out by Beijing's recent spat with South Korea over the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which was founded in the Tongge River basin of northern Korea and, at its height, included much of Manchuria.

At the heart of the politically inspired row was whether the kingdom that bestrode the period before and after Christ was Korean (as the Koreans and outside historians believe) or Chinese, as China's newly revised history claims.

Triggered by the Chinese Foreign Ministry's posting of the revised historical claim on its official Web site, the spat over the kingdom appeared to be an attempt by Beijing to dig into the past to prepare for the future. If a collapse of the rapidly corroding Stalinist state of North Korea establishes Korean reunification, it will create an industrially strong, nuclear weapons-capable Korea and dramatically alter the geopolitics of Northeast Asia.

By seeking to revise history, ostensibly at the instance of state-funded researchers, China is hedging its options on how it will deal with a unified Korea, raising in the process the specter of potential tensions over frontiers.

Like its proclivity to hedge, China's use of legends to pursue irredentist claims is renowned. An example was its 1992 "Law on the Territorial Waters and Their Contiguous Areas," which claimed four-fifths of the South China Sea, underscoring its creeping jurisdiction claims. Through an inclusive, horseshoe-shaped baseline in its maps, Beijing has signaled its intent to assert its control over the South China Sea as its "historic waters" in case oil and gas are found there. Freedom of navigation and overflight principles do not apply in historic waters. Having already declared the Paracel Islands to be part of its historic waters, China now wields the threat of doing the same to the Spratlys to the south.

As the fairy-tale Middle Kingdom, China has for long presented itself as the mother of all civilizations, weaving legends with history to foster an ultra-nationalistic political culture centered on the regaining of supposedly lost glory. Accordingly, it has claimed a historical entitlement to superpower status, publicly enunciating its ambition to be a "world power second to none."

With 60 percent of its present territory comprising homelands of ethnic minorities, China has come a long way in history since the time the Great Wall represented the Han empire's outer security perimeter. Territorially, Han power is at its zenith today. Yet, driven by self-cultivated myths, China continues to chase greater territorial and maritime claims. China is also pursuing, for the first time since the Ming dynasty, security interests far from its shores, as underlined by its current construction of Pakistan's deep-water naval base at Gwadar and its activities along Myanmar's coast.

Although Taiwan has become the Holy Grail of Chinese foreign policy, the shrill cry for "reunification" is shakily anchored in history. China may have a 3,000-year history, but the first significant Chinese settlements in Taiwan did not begin until the first half of the 17th century, when southern Taiwan was under Dutch control and the north under Spanish domination. This was long after the Portuguese had discovered the island in 1590 and named it Formosa. Even as imperial Chinese rule was facilitated by the new settlers who swamped and dispossessed the native Malay-Polynesian people over 100 years, Taiwan was not declared a province of China until 1886, barely nine years before the Manchu, defeated in the Sino-Japanese war, ceded it to Japan in perpetuity through the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

After Japan's defeat in World War II, the United States did not "return" Taiwan to China, as Beijing claims, but authorized Chiang Kai-shek's army to exercise provisional control over the island as a "trustee on behalf of the Allied Powers." It was not until the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty that Japan legally gave up sovereignty over Taiwan, but without the transferee being identified.

For more than a century now, Taiwan has been outside the direct, lawful control of mainland China. In fact, India has a stronger historic claim to Pakistan than China has to Taiwan, which geographically is closer to the Philippines than to mainland China. But no right-thinking Indian makes that claim. Who would covet a failing state of gun-toting mullahs?

Yet Taiwan remains at the center of what a tetchy China perceives as its unfulfilled historic quests. If cultural or racial ties were to confer historical entitlements, India could claim the entire region from Nepal to Mauritius. But that would be as much a travesty of history as China's single-minded aim to recolonize Taiwan, defying both the island's separate, distinct history and the wish of its people to stay autonomous.

Whether Taiwan -- a vibrant democracy today -- continues to prosper under self-governance, or is beaten into submission or absorbed by the world's largest autocratic state, will determine the future makeup of China and of Asian security. Taiwan, sitting astride vital sea-lanes, truly holds the key to whether China emerges as a stabilizing force or an arrogant power seeking unchallenged ascendancy in Asia.

China's fierceness over Taiwan as an unfinished affair of history is founded partially in the easy way it was able to gobble up a large buffer state over which it had even less of a credible historic claim -- Tibet. A triumphant annexation engenders its own force of legitimacy. As China has tightened its hold over Tibet, challenges to its historic claim over "the roof of the world" have been rendered academic. Yet, with China's continued use of purported history to advance other extravagant claims, the past can hardly be forgotten.

To China, success is a license to territorially extend its gains. For example, China's claims on Indian territories, including those it has already seized by furtive encroachment or conquest, flow from its reading of Tibet's alleged historical ties with those areas. Rather than contest China's right to move troops hundreds of kilometers south and create a military frontier with India for the first time in history, New Delhi from the beginning played into Chinese hands by retreating to a border-definition exercise with Tibet's occupiers.

With its ambition whetted, China has since then not only declined to define a line of control with India, but it also lays claim openly to India's Buddhist Tawang region (seat of a Tibetan monastery) as a cultural patio to its Tibet annexation.

Chinese mythology presents Tibet as one of the tributary states of the fabled Middle Kingdom, but Tibet has been a distinctly independent entity since the earliest times, with Tibetan forces invading Nepal in 640 A.D. During the seventh to ninth centuries, the Tibetan kingdom extended across Central Asia, including to large areas of modern-day China. The only time Tibet was part of China was under the Yuan dynasty, from 1279 to 1368.

The Yuan dynasty, however, was not Han but Mongol. It was like Burma being part of the British India empire until 1937. The Mongols imbibed Tibetan religious and cultural values and patronized Tibetan Buddhism. In a misappropriation of the Genghis Khan legacy, however, China's official history treats the Yuan dynasty as Chinese.

Today, with Beijing seeking greater influence, as never before in history, from the Pacific to the Himalayas and the Persian Gulf, Chinese foreign policy is seeking to make real the central legend that drives official history -- China's centrality in the world. Such unbridled ambition rooted in contorted history poses a major challenge to international security. At the core of the challenge is the need to find discreet ways to impose limits on the exercise of Chinese power while respecting China's right to be a world power. Taiwan thus is an issue far larger than the size of its area and population.

It might not be conceivable now, but India in the future could seek to emulate China's extended nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan by helping Taiwan protect itself from a Chinese attack through a deterrent shield.

In strategic terms, Taiwan is to India what Pakistan is to China. Unlike China with its flagrant violation of international commitments, including its legal obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty), India and Taiwan are legally unencumbered for collaborating on deterrence. Such engagement would be designed less to repay Beijing for its deeds than to extend India's own deterrent reach and aid its larger security. Taiwan, after all, holds the key to equilibrium in Asia and to China's future demeanor.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.

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