Dire straits in the East China Sea

Will Hutton


Sunday January 21, 2007


Last week China launched a missile from a base in remote western China and destroyed one of its ageing weather satellites 537 miles into space. It was an eloquent statement of its developing capacity to blind the entire American military system which is dependent on up to 200 satellites - and has sent a cold shiver down the spine of the Japanese, American and Taiwanese military establishments. If ever there is a war in Asia, this will be seen a critical moment.

China is the second largest military power in the world; it spends more than Britain, Germany and France combined. And the spending is very targeted. China is building up the arsenal it would need to invade Taiwan and hold off an attempt by the Americans and Japanese to relieve it, igniting one of the world's great flash points. No other explanation is possible.

China protests that it wants to continue to rise peacefully and does not want to disturb the current world order. It has renounced Maoism, proclaim Western intellectuals, and its aims are surely are capitalist economic growth not mounting invasions. Thus both its neighbours and the West comfort themselves.

The problem is that China has only partially renounced Maoism; the apparatus of dictatorship and one-party rule remain firmly in place but with no viable ideology to justify it. It is a highly unstable, wasteful and inefficient system which is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. The party's first claim to legitimacy is that so far it has worked. And its second claim to legitimacy is its appeal to Chinese nationalism. It is the custodian of a strong China that keeps foreigners at bay. Jobs and nationalism would be the only two pillars on which Chinese communism could sustain power, Deng Xiaoping told the party after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Deliver those and it might hold off political challenge. It has. Even Chinese history taught in schools plays up the threat from foreigners, eliminates any Chinese atrocities and emphasises the role of the party as China's saviour. Whenever it has suited the party's interest is has turned to nationalism; it raised 46 million e-signatures last year to oppose Japan winning a seat on the UN Security Council.

Which brings us to Taiwan. This island off the Chinese coast has enormous iconic importance for China in general and the Communist party in particular. Of all the humiliations suffered during the 19th century, Japan's seizure of Taiwan as a colony in 1895 rankles most. To make matters worse, this is where Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist armies fled in 1949 to declare the 'true' Republic of China, around which the US threw a mantle of protection. It is an ever-present ideological threat; proof that a Western-style economic and social model based on Enlightenment values could work on the mainland.

China has never dropped its claim for sovereignty, in 2005 passing an anti-secession law which declared that if Taiwan attempted to gain full independent statehood China reserved the right to invade. If Taiwan had lost American military protection, China would have done so already: Deng sold the recapture of Taiwan as one of the aims of his reform programme, and the party wants to keep his promise.

But time is running out. Within Taiwan the use of the local Minnan dialect has soared, displacing Mandarin. Only 3 per cent of Taiwanese now support any form of re-unification. Since 2000 the Democratic Progressive party, pledged to a fully-fledged independent Taiwanese state, has won two presidential elections. Beijing is increasingly concerned that the possibility of recovering of Taiwan is slipping away.

An invasion would be high-risk. There is only operational airspace over Taiwan for 300 fourth-generation fighters; Taiwan has 300. It would take 1,000 landing craft up to a fortnight to move 30 infantry divisions across the Taiwan Strait - all the time exposed to American and Japanese retaliation. But if the US's command and control satellite network could be knocked out, suddenly the risks would be dramatically reduced. On top, the US is increasingly focusing its military effort in the Middle East. All China needs is a fortnight.

Very few in Europe understand the Bismarkian, pre-1914 Europe feel to Asian great power politics. In February 2005, China issued an ultimatum to Japan over its occupation of the oil-rich Senkaku Islands; withdraw or face the consequences, sending a five-strong fleet to the islands. Japan responded by putting 55,000 men on alert. Both sides backed off. But China distrusts renascent Japanese nationalism, especially with Japan's now stated wish to change its pacifist constitution. Asia is a powder keg of competing nationalisms, battles for scarce energy resources and unresolved mutual enmities.

China says it wants treaties - it claims to want a treaty to prevent the militarisation of space - while pursuing balance-of-power politics. It will block India and Japan winning seats on the UN Security Council, thereby guaranteeing the ongoing dysfunctionality of the UN. China is the rogue state par excellence, all the while claiming it is quite the opposite.

Its unintended ally is George W Bush. China can make its plea for international treaties knowing that the unilateralist US will refuse. Bush then plays Bismarkian politics in Asia, backing Japan - but with dwindling military power. Talk of building a defence mechanism against a Chinese attack on American satellites is for the birds; the expense, given Iraq, and technological complexity make it impossible.

The pass has been sold. China can do what it wants. If there is unrest within, the party will turn increasingly to nationalism and perhaps even war. It shows that every aspect of globalisation, from space to trade, has to be governed by international treaty and the rule of law. The US reaction to last week should not be a star-wars arms race, but to comprehend the new realities and to respond by multilateral engagement. It won't, so it is no longer scaremongering to warn of the small, but growing risk, of a devastating Asian war.

กค Will Hutton's book, The Writing on the Wall (Time Warner, £20), is out now

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

(01/23/2007 12:31)