Saturday 26 June 2004

Avoid a Kuwait in Taiwan (UPI)

M.D. Nalapat

MANIPAL, India, July 25 (UPI) -- During his decade-long battle with Iran, Saddam Hussein was the recipient of support from the United States as well as from such countries such as the United Kingdom, which did not want to see a Khomeinists theocracy dominate the Persian Gulf.
Those in India who were in contact with the deposed president of Iraq and his advisers say that the belief among them was that the United States would not intervene to reverse a takeover of Kuwait, provided that the Iraqi forces did not carry the campaign forward into Saudi Arabia.
Former U.S. ambassador April Glaspie's ambiguous response to Saddam Hussein a short while before the decision to invade was taken was only one of a series of similar messages relayed to the dictator during that period. Soon afterward, Saddam Hussein took over Kuwait, and got thrown back - and, after another decade, out - by the United States.
Within the higher levels of the Chinese Communist Party, a similar debate is now going on about Taiwan.
Will Washington really intervene to reverse a PRC takeover, or will the United States simply indulge in some saber rattling, impose a trade embargo for a while, and then get back to business as usual with Beijing?
The Chinese Communists look at societies holistically, not separating out the different strands but conceptually weaving them into a unified entity with a common decision core. Hence, "casual" remarks from businesspersons or academics known to have close personal ties with senior administration officials are given the same attention as official statements, sometimes more.

Despite the initial Bush rhetoric about the PRC being a strategic competitor rather than a partner, there has been a growing flow of officials, businesspersons and academics into Beijing who assure those they meet that Washington would shy away from the immense disruption caused by a war with Beijing. In such remarks, Taiwan becomes the 21st century version of 1930s Czechoslovakia, "a small, faraway land of which we know nothing," in the words of the then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
These officials justify their Glaspie-like comments by claiming that the hardheaded Chinese Communist leadership would not risk economic ruin by invading Taiwan and that the creation of prosperity is the cornerstone of the unwritten compact that has thus far kept the Chinese people from seeking to overthrow the un-elected elite that rules their country. In a sense, such "economist" reasoning is similar to that which was used to justify the post-Desert Storm sanctions on Iraq.
The group that ran Baghdad - Saddam Hussein, his sons and relatives and their friends - cared little for the sufferings of the people of Iraq. Indeed, they used the hardship caused by the sanctions to demonize the United States, Britain and the other powers that were insistent on them, thus gaining legitimacy as fighters for freedom from such oppression.
The external enemy - and the new U.S. envoy to Iraq, John Negroponte, was among the more visible public faces of this - was seen as seeking "to starve the Iraqi people into submission." Thus, the anger against Saddam Hussein began to get diverted into channels that fuelled anger against the countries backing the sanctions.
While the population of Iraq starved, those around Saddam Hussein enjoyed a royal lifestyle. In the same way, the elite of the Chinese Communist Party will continue to enjoy a regal lifestyle even should a trade embargo result in widespread loss of jobs.
In the same way the sanctions in Iraq did not either deter the Saddam Hussein clique from holding on to power and to their policies, nor create the conditions for a revolt against the regime, the economic hardship caused by a possible U.S. trade embargo on the PRC will be used to whip up nationalist sentiment that paradoxically will strengthen the Chinese Communist Party's support.
Unless the loss of jobs is caused by domestic policies - rather than by external sanctions - politically, the negative effects on Communist Party rule will be slight. Hence, fears that Wal-Mart will stop outsourcing from China are not going to deter the higher communist leadership from attacking Taiwan, especially in a context where several key trading blocs - including South Korea, the ASEAN countries, the Mideast and quite possibly several countries in Europe -- are unlikely to join in such sanctions. And Chinese veto will ensure that they do not have the legitimacy of a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The leadership in Beijing will batten down the hatches and wait for Washington to "accept the inevitable," as it did on Tibet and on Tiananmen Square. This, of course, presumes that the United States will not go to war with China over Taiwan
Even were there war, Chinese diplomacy has been in overdrive to ensure that Washington fights alone. Today, only a Koizumist Japan is likely to join forces with the United States in attempting to reverse a PRC takeover of Taiwan.
South Korea has been neutralized, as has most of ASEAN. Even Australia is now going through a debate as to whether intervention in a cross-strait conflict would serve Canberra's long-term interest. Beijing has been working actively in Europe as well to ensure that the European Union joins such huge neighbors of China as Russia and India in sitting out a war between the United States and China across the Taiwan Straits.
The planners in Beijing will be calculating that the United States may, especially after Iraq, hesitate to go it alone, especially against an enemy as formidable as the People's Republic of China.
In material terms the United States has preponderant power even in the region of the China seas, the fact that the lines of communication of U.S. forces stretch back thousands of miles, as against the Chinese Communists, who will be operating from their own backyard, will act as a disincentive for war.
In the United States, as in the EU, there has emerged a group of scholars who are analogous to those who researched the former Soviet Union in the days of the Cold War. The latter refused to give credence to claims that the system in Moscow was suffering from dry rot. Almost until the end of the 1980s, they persisted in assuming that the Soviet Union would survive into the indefinite future. In much the same way, the community researching on China is making several assumptions that may be incorrect, such as that "there is no ideology within the Chinese Communist Party."
While it is true that the Chinese Communists have little patience with Marxism-Leninism (and since Deng Xiaoping, even with Maoism), the reality is that the party theoreticians have crafted a coherent ideology that has Western-style democracy and the United States as the enemy. The contempt for democracies, whether in India or in Taiwan, is explicit, as is the presumption that only an Asia "cleansed" of U.S. influence will be truly free
Thus, what has replaced orthodox Marxist theory in the Communist Party in China is not a vacuum but a new ideology that has incorporated the old one's contempt for, and enmity towards, Western-style democracy and its most powerful expression, the United States.
Finally, those that complacently assume that Beijing will follow the same trajectory as Moscow are glossing over the fact that while the Soviet Union was a status-quo power, intent only on protecting what was won by it as a result of World War II, China is actively seeking a change in the status quo.
What Beijing seeks is to replace the United States with itself as the primary power in Asia, an objective that its diplomats do not bother to conceal in Southeast Asia, and increasingly in the Middle East as well. In Europe, the PRC is firmly on the side of "Old Europe", boosting the French and the Germans as they seek to de-link Europe from U.S. leadership.
Apart from the unlikely event of Taiwan declaring formal independence, the prospects for a war will rise in proportion to the degree of internal instability in China. The new regime headed by President Hu Jintao is seeking to dismantle the old economic structure dominated by manufacturing, replacing it with one that incorporates modern sectors such as biotech, information technology and space at its core. This could involve the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and consequent unrest. Should such instability spiral upward to levels beyond the capacity of the security infrastructure to cope with, a war over Taiwan could become the ultimate anti-riot weapon, once again uniting the Han population behind the Communist Party.
The potential for conflict has become higher as a result of the unique situation China finds itself in today when, for the first time since Lin Biao in the 1960s, the party no longer seems to be in control of the gun. Former President Jiang Zemin is using his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission to carve out a space independent of the Chinese Communist Party, a process that could lead to a rise in the influence of the men in uniform over policy not seen since Lin's time.
When combined with the essential defenselessness of Taiwan (there is no defense as effective as strong offensive capability, an option the United States has denied Taiwan, the prospects for a miscalculation on the Saddam-Kuwait model are growing. Rather than seek to wish it away, Washington needs to face up to the reality that it could be at war with China within a decade, face up to this as energetically as the PRC itself is doing with its crash program of military modernization and refinement of asymmetric warfare against a "more powerful enemy." No prizes for guessing who that enemy is.

-The writer is director of the School of Geopolitics of the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India

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