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Monday, May 9, 2005

Relax, war unlikely in Asia through 2008


LOS ANGELES -- We here in the West -- despite our ritualistic (and sometimes loud-mouthed) advocacy of democracy -- do appreciate the decision of the people in charge in Beijing to clamp down on those anti-Japanese protests, clear out the streets, order people to get out of those incendiary anti-Tokyo chat-rooms, and cease acting as if China were some sort of genuine democracy where real political demonstrations are freely allowed.

The truth is, for awhile there, with all those demonstrations against Japan going on, we in the West were getting uncomfortable. It was beginning to look as if East Asia was pretty much the same old place -- an ancient land of such intense national hatreds that true stability and prosperity was just an illusion. Would another war in Asia be just around the corner?

Perhaps that looks to be less and less probable now. My own best educated guess: Nothing serious will actually occur until after 2008.

Why is 2008 so special? A pair of obvious reasons comes to mind. The first is that Beijing is to host the Summer Olympics in 2008. This may be the biggest deal to come along for China in its effort to relate to the outside world as a normal country since the death of Mao Zedong.

It represents a sparkling gem of an international public-relations opportunity for the regime, assuming (a) China handles the complicated staging with competence, (b) no wars get in the way at the time, (c) China hasn't invaded Taiwan and set itself back decades, and (d) relations with its neighbors are at least civilized, if not all that warm and cozy.

Thus, it behooves Beijing to keep tensions and everything else under control so that China can present its best and nicest face to the world between now and 2008. Wars are not pretty, and have a tendency to get in the way of peaceful activities and tend to mar one's peaceful image.

There is a second reason why 2008 is so significant to Beijing. This is the year that incumbent Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian leaves office. Like our American presidents, he is limited to two terms and is now a quarter-way through his second.

China thinks of Taiwan's Chen about as fondly as U.S. President George W. Bush thinks of Osama bin Laden. If it had its way, it would probably like to do to him what Bush would like to do to Osama. But there is the 2008 Olympics, and there is that election.

Beijing is betting the house that Chen's would-be successor, a candidate of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, won't get elected. It would do almost anything to see that, so the Chinese are planning their 2008 campaign against Chen's party.

That is the unmistakable implication of Beijing's decision to have the leader of the top Taiwan opposition visit the mainland late last month and stroll upon red carpet after red carpet. And that was the unmistakable implication of the second invitation extended to prominent Taiwanese politician James Soong, who is leader of Taiwan's No. 2 opposition party.

These few weeks have seen more visits of prominent island politicians to the mainland than ever before. Beijing appears to have figured that if it cannot beat the independence party the way Bush toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- by invasion -- it will beat Chen the way the late, legendary old Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago used to keep control -- by trying to rig the election.

China will make nice with anyone who doesn't belong to Chen's pro-independence party. It will do whatever it can to isolate the DPP -- below as well as above the table -- in the same the way it has done everything it can to isolate Taiwan itself in the world community.

What this means is that Beijing will probably seek to de-prioritize any issue that has the potential to lead to frictions with anyone who might want to help along the Taiwan independence movement.

Possible pro-independence fans of the first order are rightwing sectors of Japan that retain ties to the island that the Japanese colonized from 1895 to 1945. These elements have money, hate the Chinese and would love to kick a little dust up with the mainland.

These groups must be closely watched by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government. These are the people who have the kind of reverence for Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that conservative Catholics have for the Roman Curia.

In fact, if you were wily Chinese President Hu Jintao, you might even calculate that Koizumi's visits to the shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead, however morally repugnant in Beijing, are actually in China's strategic interest. Anything that strengthens the prime minister's hand with his hardcore right wing -- anything that serves to keep them from going nuts and thus causing trouble -- is a plus for Beijing.

Besides, the shrine-loving Koizumi won't be in office forever, either. Come to think of it, his second term ends late next year. Every year that goes by, it seems, gets better and better for Beijing -- as long as there's no war.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Copyright Tom Plate 2005


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