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Saturday, June 10, 2006

China's buildup is no wonder


LOS ANGELES -- There has been an unsettling discordance about U.S. policy toward China that was brought home anew by Donald Rumsfeld, recently at the annual IISS Asia Security Summit in Singapore. Why this discredited man with his failed Iraqi policies remains U.S. secretary of defense is a profound mystery only the ever-loyal President George W. Bush can possibly unravel. But there he was, as a principal speaker, jabbering away anew at the Asia security summit, and yet -- fully five years into the job -- still parsing out the nuances of the Sino-U.S. relationship in public. It was as if the utter necessity of getting along with China was somehow a new hard-to-grasp idea.

Five years as defense secretary should be enough time to get that all-important relationship right and tight. Thus, it was pleasant to see that the immediate Western news-media reports from the International Institute for Strategic Studies conference suggested that Rumsfeld was getting closer than ever to peaceful coherence.

In remarks formal and informal, the defense boss painted a regional international relations picture that was more modified multilateral mosaic than pointed unilateral unicorn.

It emphasized a bigger picture of cooperation over a narrower vision of confrontation. Afterward, one noted Asia hand concluded optimistically that "it is clear that there is a kinder, gentler view in the Pentagon toward China." One thinks not: As the saying goes, the wish is often father to the thought.

In reality, our Pentagon in America is focused, not unwisely, because that is its primary job, on China's continuing military bulk-up. Americans are warned regularly, through periodic reports and episodic statements, of its relentless ferocity.

Warnings are worth getting, but what's harder to get a handle on is the melodramatic Pentagon story line. The idea under official conveyance appears to be that some major mystery surrounds the bulk-up. There's no mystery at all. Three reasons readily explain what China is up to militarily.

The first reason is that economically expanding nations almost always simultaneously increase their arms spending. Certainly, both India and now Russia has increased their spending.

The second is that the official stated Chinese policy of eventual integration of Taiwan into historic "mother" China, probably in a Hong Kong-style confederation arrangement, depends vitally -- Beijing believes -- on its own military credibility. Continuing on with this logic, it is Beijing's view that the greater the arms gap between the mainland and the island, the less likely war will be resorted to. In this way, Beijing reasons, the faster the mainland bulk-up, the sooner the political integration, the faster the cooling of feral nationalistic fever on the mainland on the Taiwan issue, and the more permanent and reality-based becomes the true passage of peace across the Taiwan Strait.

The third reason for China's not-so-mysterious bulk-up is as plain as the nose on Rumsfeld's face. It is an absolutely logical response to America's buildup. Why it is that U.S. leaders seem incapable of understanding this continuing factor in world politics is utterly mystifying.

What precise theory of exceptionalism would allow the United States to forge ahead militarily, spending far more of its national treasure on arms both proportionately and aggregately than other countries, but would also forbid other nations from doing the same?

Is it that the U.S. would never, ever use its vast military might without unequivocal international sanction to do so? Right but then there's Iraq.

Is it that it's OK for the U.S. to possess a vast stockpile of weapons but it's not OK that others have them, precisely because we would never use them but they might? Yeah, but what about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? (This thought is never lost in Asia, by the way.)

Is it that U.S. military doctrine is clearly defensive and pacific and trustworthy, unlike that of almost all present and would-be nuclear powers? Well many nations (like China) have an announced nuclear-weapons policy that expressly prohibit nuclear use unless in retaliation for a nuclear attack by another.

Guess which superpower has consistently refused to offer the world a no-first-use policy?

All of the above seems to me to add up to a totally satisfying explanation of what China is up to. It is no more mysterious than America's own military bulk-up. If we want others to build down their forces, then we have to downsize ours as well so that we can then righteously insist that others follow our lead.

U.S. militarism is at least as off-putting as China's. And it threatens to section the world into a pair of warring camps. Not a good idea: "If we end up with a closed Asian bloc centered on China on the western side of the Pacific, with a rival bloc centered on the U.S. on the eastern side, rivalry, antagonism and conflict will be inevitable." That was the thought of Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, which hosted the conference. Singapore has been a staunch U.S. ally, but if the mutual bulk-ups continue, for how much longer?

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

Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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