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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Hilariously ineffective charm offensive


LOS ANGELES -- Watch out, the Chinese oil-saboteurs may be coming. Hold on to your derricks! Western newspapers are reporting that the giant China National Offshore Oil Corp. may make a bid to acquire the U.S. oil group Unocal. If the effort is successful (note: the U.S. oil giant Chevron may have a lock on the deal), can Americans look forward to gas prices posted in U.S. dollars and in a presumably devalued yuan?

Will Chinese fast food become available at American gas-stop islands, which generally peddle bad-for-your-health snacks and caloric fruit drinks?

Is yuan-rich China proposing to buy up America as yen-rich Japan was feared to have tried to do long ago? Remember when Tokyo started buying everything in America from famous golf courses to Rockefeller Center?

You'll know that this Chinese takeover bid for an American oil company is deemed serious when some U.S. politician gets up and denounces the Chinese-ization of America. A good candidate for the job, I suggest, is Charles E. Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York. He's bright, obnoxious in the New York City sense, as tough and unforgiving as a New York subway and constantly complains about Chinese exports and their overvalued currency.

If I were one of the boys in Beijing, I would more worry about Schumer's demagogic tongue than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's antiballistic missile system. The former, to the extent it can rally American public opinion against China, could really sting. The latter, expensive though it would be, may not ever actually work.

In the latter connection, though, Rumsfeld's anti-China rhetoric is getting a bit tiresome. One is, of course, enormously sympathetic to the Pentagon's desire to puff up potential adversaries in order to bulk up its defense budget. In Singapore, though, Rummy launched a few verbal missiles China's way that intellectually missed their targets by a mile but emotionally shook up everyone in the neighborhood.

He charged that Beijing's military buildup was a threat to all of Asia. That came as news to much of Asia, which, rightly or wrongly, generally fears potential Japanese aggression more than a Chinese one. (I call it post-World War II traumatic stress syndrome). Rumsfeld actually said: "Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: Why this growing investment?"

One doesn't ordinarily think of the top dogs in Beijing as having the world's greatest sense of humor, but this comment must have tickled them pink. The greatest potential military threat to China, Mr. Secretary of Defense, is in fact the United States.

In addition to our superior hardware, Beijing may just possibly have taken note of our penchant for invading countries in the absence of U.N. or other international authorization. This makes us -- by any reasonable definition -- a potential and potent threat.

By contrast, China is no serious military threat to the U.S. now or in the immediate future. Its buildup is inspired, designed and configured with but one objective in mind: Taiwan. It is determined to have that lovely, industrious and, in many respects, brilliant offshore island brought into the eventual overall embrace of Mother China -- as were Macau and Hong Kong.

To this end, the U.S. only plays into the hands of those militarists in China who want to blow even more yuan on their own arms buildup, especially when Washington and Tokyo include Taiwan in their sphere of strategic interests, as a recent joint communique so stated.

Reading Rumsfeld's speech makes one doubt whether the current administration really does have its Asia act together. President George W. Bush, for example, has been publicly as well as privately pushing the Hu Jintao government to collar Pyongyang and yank them back to the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea.

This is a worthy goal, actually, and China's effort could indeed prove pivotal. But if you are asking Beijing to, in effect, club the North Korean seal over the head and drag it to the bargaining table, why would you publicly insinuate that China is a threat to all of Asia and that Taiwan is not an internal matter between Taipei and Beijing?

There are only two explanations: One is that Washington has developed a hilariously unique definition of "charm offensive." The other possibility is that half of this administration (i.e., the Washington/Pentagon/national-security apparatus half) does not really want a negotiated settlement of the North Korea issue, because with such an agreement, the argument for an Asia-based antiballistic missile system would be weakened. The U.S. prefers to paint China as an antagonist rather than as a sometimes parallel partner.

We know that Rumsfeld is not dumb. But by the logic of his Singapore speech, the Pentagon should be prepared to blow up any Unocal tanker that China may purchase. This sure looks like oily internal subversion, doesn't it?

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran journalist, is founder and director of UCLA's Media Center.
Copyright Tom Plate 2005


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