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Saturday, July 30, 2005

China: how threatening, and to whom?

LOS ANGELES -- Nations tend to act like alcoholics when it comes to military arms: The more, the merrier. What's more, they do not generally tend to adopt a healthier lifestyle and drink less as they become wealthier. Instead, they just consume a better quality of booze.

Nothing better illustrates the iron law of arms alcoholism than the current defense buildup in China. In recent years Beijing's defense spending has been increasing at double-digit rates, which is a bit higher than its impressive national economic growth.

For alarmists in Washington, China's actions speak louder than any reassuring official words, such as Beijing's standard line that China is engaged in nothing but a "peaceful rise." But sometimes chilling words can speak at least as forcefully as actions.

Earlier this month, a loudmouthed general in China voiced the ill-considered view that any American intervention on Taiwan's side in the event of mainland military action could trigger nuclear war. China would lose all its cities east of Xian, he said, but for their part the "Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese."

Major Gen. Zhu Chenghu, a top military official, actually made these remarks rather matter-of-factly to a visiting delegation of Hong Kong journalists.

But not everyone in Washington was unhappy with this warmongering; some, on the contrary, were delighted, especially those in the Bush administration and neoconservative think tanks for whom China provides the most plausible rationale for a turbo-charged U.S. military buildup.

With enemies like Zhu, the Pentagon hardly needs friends and allies to make the case that the more the U.S. arms, the merrier.

In fact, at about the same time as the Chinese general was going ballistic, the Pentagon was making public its annual report on China's military strength. In reality, there were few surprises in the 45 pages of exposition and analysis, which, by and large, were happily devoid of obvious hyperbole or overt scaremongering.

China, in reality, is a rapidly developing giant nation with its own set of national goals and proposed ways of achieving them. One of its chosen avenues, for worse as well as better, is the hardware highway for fancy technology, including an array of short-range and not-so-short-range ballistic missiles.

The current overriding goal is to intimidate Taiwan, which Beijing aims to bring into the warm embrace of its sovereign ambit, as it recently has with Macau and Hong Kong.

For its part, Beijing would not regard military action against Taiwan as an invasion -- as the United States into Iraq -- because it views Taiwan as a historic part of China and thus not as foreign territory. Even so, any significant military action across the strait would work dramatically against the mainland's carefully cultivated image as a power on a "peaceful rise," and, of course, gravely complicate if not poison relations with the West, especially the U.S.

Of course, Beijing knows this, but regards its buildup as best understood -- from its perspective, anyway -- as primarily an internal matter rather than as an offensive provocation or ambition.

This, generally and perhaps surprisingly, is also the Asian view. "We in Asia simply do not see China as a military threat or problem, not yet anyway," said a senior Southeast Asian diplomat here. "We are nowhere near the alarmist American view," she added.

That could change at any time, of course. The Pentagon is right to worry out loud, though it is noteworthy that its report originally possessed talon-like edges that were yanked by the diplomats at the State Department and wiser heads in the White House. There can be a fine line between overwrought paranoia and a self-fulfilling prophecy concerning a possible foe's intentions.

Even so, China must understand that it is in the world spotlight as never before, and its every move is now under the global public-opinion microscope. It cannot simply express incredulity when anyone questions its peaceful intent.

For this and other reasons, the expected fall visit to Washington by Chinese President Hu Jintao assumes great importance. In all probability, Hu and his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush will get along fine. The harder job for the Chinese leader will be to impress the American people with China's maturity and responsibility. That job isn't made any easier by generals who foolishly threaten a much better armed America with nuclear holocaust.

Indeed, Hu might want to consider stripping Zhu of his military decorations and ordering him off for a few months of forced attendance at Warmongers Anonymous. Some habits are just not good for the health of a bilateral relationship.

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

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