NEW DELHI, June 21 (UPI) -- Hard times are tough, but good times can be even worse. Since the Vietnam defeat in 1975, the United States has not suffered a serious overt blow to its military power, with the result there has been no serious effort at reconfiguring strategies in a context in which India and China displace Europe as the geopolitical pivot of the Eurasian landmass.
Over the coming decade, the "European premium" that has enabled the countries of the West to enjoy a standard of life far in excess of their productive capacities, or future potential, will gradually erode. Only the countries of East Asia and West Asia are victims to this premium now. For the most part, both Arab and Sinic societies are in a time warp. They are unwilling to accept that the center of excellence is shifting from Europe to Asia and North America.
However even they are changing slowly so a secular decline in the standard of living within Europe seems inevitable.
Due of the momentum created by its size, the United States has been able to shrug off the effect of mistakes in policy, creating for itself the illusion it still has time on its side. The fact is 2005 is the equivalent of 1905. The world is about a decade from a possible major international conflagration, one that is likely to be centered in East Asia.
Unless the Chinese Communist Party goes in for economic restructuring, the country will not be able to fend off competition from new players such as Vietnam and India, with the result it will enter into the same process of economic atrophy that has begun in Europe after the expansion of the European Union. The option of reform is almost as painful and will remove from employment tens of millions of those who would have enjoyed more than a decade of prosperity.
It is not the habitual poor who rebel but those who were once well off and are now undergoing hardship. The Chinese Communist Party has overseen a spectacular growth in the real income of its populations. This is the largest known growth in history. Since the Deng Xiaoping reforms that began in 1979, the country has seen substantial growth and prosperity creating in the process a middle class for whom the continuance of good times - not political reforms -- has become the paramount objective.
The Chinese are willing to subordinate themselves to authority were they to regard their welfare as dependent on such acceptance of limitations in freedoms. Should they believe the prosperity that has finally come to them is threatened, they would be as willing to entrust their fates to authorities who they think can reverse economic decline.
Should China enter a period of economic contraction -- something that is now being predicted with increasing frequency -- the population is likely to accept a "hard" regime that promises a "soft" life, rather than go the way of Russians, who rallied behind Boris Yeltsin in an atavistic fit of collective masochism, and subsequently saw their country's economy collapse.
The experience of Russia has served to reduce the hunger for reform within the Chinese population to low levels, despite the verbal encouragement given to such a process by "scholars" from Europe and North America.
And thus Proposition 1: The Chinese population is much more likely to turn toward "authoritarian" than "reformist" solutions at times of internal and external flux. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party understands this well. It was the recognition of this propensity of the middle classes in China that led the author in November 2002 to suggest a policy of "Constrainment," rather than a duplication of the George Kennan policy of "Containment" that was carried out toward the Soviet Union.
While "containment" would be a broad-spectrum medication, applicable virtually across the board to choke off economic, technological, personal and other contacts, a policy of "constrainment" would have the much narrower focus of degrading China's ability to wage war even while keeping open normal trade and people-to- people channels.
The objective would not be isolation but a steady attrition of the power to sustain a conflict. This could be achieved by a careful monitoring of technology transfers, harsh measures against entities such as North Korea that depend on China, as well as a network of alliances that would automatically get activated in the event of a conflict initiated by China. As a part of such a policy of constrainment, the author suggested the formation of an "Asian NATO" that would guarantee the security of democracies across Asia, even those that were not formal members of the new alliance.
However, the Euro-centric foreign policy and defense establishment in the United States and their Cold War counterparts in India have ensured such a policy remains unimplemented. The United States has still to rid itself of the illusion that Beijing can be part of the solution, when the reality is it is Beijing that has created the problem, most notably in Pakistan and North Korea, the "proxy" nuclear powers created to apply pressure on the flanks of India and Japan respectively.
As for India, while China continues to arm both Pakistan and Bangladesh against New Delhi, those involved in the making of policy continue to hope if they turn their gaze away from the elephant in the room, the animal will disappear.
Chinese leaders, however, have a pachyderm in the room -- Taiwan. While many have written of "One China" or "Two Chinas," the reality is that there are now Two Taiwans. The first (Taiwan One) largely comprises the families of the KMT cadres and elite that occupied the island after their 1949 rout, while the latter (Taiwan Two) comprises most of the rest of the population.
The divide between the two Taiwans has only grown as a consequence of Beijing's policy of dealing exclusively with those who accept the principle of eventual absorption of the island into China. And thus Proposition 2,which is Taiwan Two is likely to increase its influence on policy over Taiwan One, despite the help given to the latter by the United States.
What will become manifest in the years ahead will be a "scissors" effect, caused by: First, increasing ferment within China, leading to the heightening of authoritarian modes of rule and approach;
Second, the widening gap between Taiwan One and Taiwan Two, that creates an impetus within the latter to further stretch the boundaries of Taiwan One's compact with Beijing by increasing the pace of formal separation between China and Taiwan.
Eventually -- at present rates of development, most probably by 2012-15 -- the two blades of the scissors may come together, resulting in a conflagration. After nearly four decades of subjugation to Taiwan One, those who comprise Taiwan Two are unlikely to welcome absorption into China. However, the internal situation within China may by that time make a diversion of public attention through conflict likely.
The PRC economy hinges on two factors, a high degree of access to U.S. markets and public confidence in the longevity and stability of Communist Party rule. Should this appear shaky, there is likely to be a collapse in the financial system, followed by a meltdown in employment and output. This will confront the CCP with a Hobson's Choice: risk ruin through alienating the U.S. market (through conflict with Taiwan) or watch as public anger against CCP rule rises to a degree that makes its stamping down impossible.
Although there seems much distance between Communist Romania and present-day China, the fact remains an oligarchy controls both, one that is dependent on tacit consent of the multitude of those governed. Further while both populations appear docile, they each have an invisible "red line" that -- once crossed -- leads to chaos.
Given its present policy toward the island, Taiwan is a lose-lose situation for China. Should Beijing ignore the inevitable steady progression by Taiwan Two toward the formal attributes of independence, jingoist elements in the military and in the population at large will get alienated.
However, even worse would be the option of war, for this would cut the PRC away from its major market, as well as ensure an evolving policy of Constrainment gets replaced with a policy of severe Containment designed to emasculate the regime by weakening the country, in the manner of Iraq from 1990-2003.
Only a policy of abjuring the use of force against Taiwan so long as there is no formal declaration of independence by the island will steer China away from such treacherous waters. This appears unlikely. The policy of the Chinese Communist Party has historically followed the flowing zigzag direction of quantum mechanics rather than on the linear path of classical mechanics.
Proposition 3 states this fundamental propensity to change direction in CCP policy has not been reversed by the Deng reforms, and the CCP is likely to recoil from the "economistic" policies of this period. The tacit encouragement given to the anti-Japanese riots in April 2005 is an early indicator of such a switch.
In part this is because other powers have not reacted the way China has to "economistic" stimuli. Despite China showering largesse on the European Union in the form of investment and purchases, diplomatic returns have been few, barring atmospherics and verbiage, two fields in which the CCP itself excels, and has used to great effect while dealing with countries less sophisticated, such as India, where the "national security" talent pool comprises mostly of retired bureaucrats and journalists, all of whom source their analysis from the embassies in New Delhi.
The clearer-headed Europeans -- barring France -- have refused the temptation of breaking ranks with the United States in order to support the rival interests of a much weaker power, China, as have most of the South American, African and Central Asian states.
It would be easy to assume the geopolitical successes of the United States are based less on its economic performance than on its military arsenal. Such a conclusion though wrong, would accentuate the increasing trend of defense spending seen within China since the end of the Jiang Zemin period. While media coverage of theatres such as Afghanistan, Serbia and Iraq have judged the U.S. military to have defeated local rivals, the fact is in each case the objective situation for overall U.S. interests is worse after military occupation (as distinct from intervention) than before.
While it is true China has increased its profile and presumed influence within its neighborhood -- most notably with an equally Japan-phobic South Korea -- the fact remains that despite huge increases in economic linkage, support by the "periphery" countries for China core interests ends where U.S. core interests begin.
Both South Korea and Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore (the original booster of China) host U.S. troops and continue to maintain a dense network of military-military cooperation with Washington. On the Taiwan issue, neither has snapped non-commercial links with the island, though Singapore appears to have got a case of the jitters over recent Chinese criticism of high-profile visits by Taiwanese politicians to the city-state.
Whether it is in Central Asia or elsewhere, the much smaller economic footprint of India, for example, has not prevented New Delhi from carrying almost as much diplomatic weight as Beijing.
On balance it appears that an "economist" approach to foreign policy is not sufficient to ensure support for Chinese interests. Hence the increasing inner-party consensus that the "rising superpower" needs an armed forces that reflects its economic muscle. The attention being paid to the creation of a blue water navy and long-range underwater and airborne strike capability indicates a policy decision to have the capacity to intervene militarily in China's "Near Abroad" -- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the China Seas and -- a recent addition -- the Indian Ocean.
These accretions are much higher in scope and volume than are needed for a purely "Taiwan-centric" posture. The evolving parameters suggest a determination by Beijing to gradually displace the U.S.-Japan combination as the principal military power in Asia.
Proposition 4 states China is seeking to create an archipelago of bases and "friendly" locations that could be used to moor its forces so it can be in position to repel or initiate an attack. Particular attention will be paid to the Pacific Ocean mini-states and to Pakistan. Gwadar is only the most visible symbol of this developing trend.
While those involved in the making of U.S. foreign policy are usually also the ones judging its relevance and success, the reality is that Washington's external affairs elite appears to have developed the characteristics of a sadomasochistic worldview. The harshest measures are carried out against those regarded as incapable of significant retaliation, while toward the rest, there is a cringing -- in practice -- accompanied by growls that hopefully camouflage the kowtow. Toward China, the growling -- mainly on monetary issues -- has been unable to mask the acceptance of Beijing's bona fides on most critical issues.
A parallel can be drawn between the United States of today and Britain of the 1920s and the 1930s. At that time, London refused to acknowledge the significance of the rise of the National Socialist Deutsch Arbeiter Partei under Adolf Hitler, seeing in him either a crank or as an individual with whom business could get transacted. Similarly, Britain failed to recognize that the most effective ally against Hitlerite Germany would not be an enervated and panic-stricken France but the Soviet Union. It was because both London and Paris left Moscow no other option that the Hitler-Stalin pact took place, emboldening Berlin to risk a world war. Replace London with Washington, Berlin with Beijing and Moscow with New Delhi, shift back "2005" to "1929" and you have the present.
-(M.D. Nalapat is professor of geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. This article was originally published in Security Research Review, New Delhi, Vol. 1 (3), April 2005.)