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Monday, Oct. 26, 2009

Paranoids feast on China's 'peaceful rising'

LOS ANGELES — Paranoid people tend to live longer, goes the old joke. And so it is in this spirit only — not out of a desire to engage in Cold War China-bashing — that we raise concerns about China. So here's the paranoid's question: Just what is China really up to?

The facts are as follows. In parallel with its astonishing and commendable economic rise, China has put together new military architecture that's enough to give one shivers. Of course, the rising military syndrome is hardly unique to China. By and large, economic growth and military buildups go hand in hand.

Consider that even India has been sharpening its sticks and buying all sorts of military stuff. And this is in the historic land of Gandhi. It is rapidly lathering on layers of military muscle as its economy continues to upsurge. The United States, of course, spends more money on arms than anyone, by far.

But China's buildup is today's topic since it is especially dramatic. It can't just be waved off as a nonevent. Even the most levelheaded and serious Western experts, who are generally inclined to give Beijing the benefit of the doubt, are worried about what it might mean.

As is the government of Taiwan, of course. This bustling offshore island, in the daunting shadow of the colossus of China's mainland, is becoming more paranoid than American turkeys approaching Thanksgiving. It is particularly alarmed about the increase of short-range missiles pointed at them — now said to be close to 1,500. That's roughly one Chinese missile for every 23 square kilometers of Taiwan's turf.

And while China's missile count continues to mount, tiny Taiwan's territory does not. From a paranoid's perspective, this is not restful. Thus, a recently released report from Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense claims that China's buildup has even gotten to the point where it is capable of deterring the intervention of other foreign militaries — such as America's or Japan's — were it to go to war against the island.

It must be noted that Beijing considers Taiwan an integral part of China, and from its perspective any use of force on its part would be an internal political matter, not an outside act of aggression. But legal niceties aside, the overall regional balance of military power may in fact be at the tipping point.

That view has another assessment also capable of keeping paranoids awake at night. Rand Corp. author-experts David A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scot Tanner and Barry Wilson reached comparable conclusions in "A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute."

In their view, the growing size and quality of China's missile arsenal, along with other advances in Chinese military capabilities, call into question the basic ability of America and Taiwan to defend the island against a large-scale Chinese attack. They also noted that China explicitly refuses to renounce the use of force against Taiwan; nor has it "withdrawn any missiles from the hundreds it points at Taiwan."

China's government constantly proclaims a policy of "peaceful rising" even as it enlarges its international space economically and diplomatically. At the same time the Taiwan people have elected a government committed to peaceful negotiations with the mainland over the political future of Taiwan, specifically voting out the government that had been aggressively committed to Taiwan's formal independence.

So the paranoid's question is simple: If the mainland's peaceful and bilateral relations with Taiwan are now so reasonable and promising, why is China barging ahead with its arms buildup as if there's no tomorrow?

As we say, this is the standard paranoid's way of looking at reality. I am not there — yet — but to quote an ancient Chinese saying (Pinyin): Xing xing zhi huo ke ye? liao yuan, or a single spark can start a fire that winds up burning the entire prairie.

In another words, a single spark of doubt about the sincerity of China's peaceful intentions could ignite a wildfire of fear and suspicion that could unnecessarily complicate its life and return world politics to a binary state of neo-Cold War.

So, how about, for starters, Beijing removing a few hundred of those missiles aimed at little Taiwan as a gesture of its true personal warmth (and aim them nowhere else)?

This at least could allow some of the world's internationally oriented paranoids to finally get some rest — until the next paranoid crisis, of course.

Syndicated columnist and former UCLA professor Tom Plate is writing a series of books on major Asian political figures. An archive of recent columns is at: www.pacificperspectives.blogspot.com. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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