Tuesday, May 31, 2011

China is not a kinder, gentler machine gun hand

I've seen the claim here and there that, unlike America, which sticks its nose everywhere in the world, China will be a more hands-off superpower, asking no questions as long as it has access to the resources it needs. Moreover, unlike American expansionism, China has no such plans.

However, even a cursory knowledge of Chinese history under the PRC reveals the opposite. While it's somewhat true that China, instead of conquering weaker states, opted for a vassal system, the PRC's history over the last sixty years has been one of steady if unnoticed expansion.

China borders fourteen countries along with quasi-states in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as maritime proximity to Taiwan, which sadly is considered a quasi-state in the legal if not practical sense. If we consider these seventeen entities and add in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, we have twenty in all.

Of these twenty, China has already utilized its human wave tactics to greatly subdue any irredentism in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Protests, interestingly, are currently cropping up in Inner Mongolia.

Of the remaining seventeen, we have seen China do its best to seek reunification with Taiwan, turn Hong Kong into an extension of the mainland, and this year alone, station soldiers in the North Korean free trade zone of Rason while picking up one percent of Tajikistan on its other border. Also in North Korea, China is going to help develop a North Korean island on its border with China.

Farther from home, China also butted heads last fall with Japan over the disputed Senkaku islands while justifiably getting angry at America's encroachment in its claim to the South China Sea, to which about a half dozen countries have staked their name.

Now, what I term territorial expansionism on the part of China might simply be the counterpart of wingnuts referring to globalization as a new form of colonization. Every powerful country to some extent got to be that way by asserting claims which, controversial at the outset, were made permanent and uncontroversial by the forces of time and momentum. Whether China is more or less belligerent than the present guard of Western powers and Japan were about a hundred years ago is not the sort of debate I'm having.

I also don't believe, for example, that everything China does is a cause for concern. Just because China buys a lot of soybeans in Brazil, the subject of a recent New York Times article, develops a stealth fighter, or has an economy bigger than Japan doesn't mean that we should start brushing up on dull paeans to Deng Xiaopeng and a harmonious society. The most important area of concern with respect to China is not what it will do to us, but how well its own people are living and how freely they live.

That said, there are many things which China does that are specifically disconcerting. From my vantage point in Northeast Asia, a growing concern lost in breathless lurch-and-seize speculation about nuclear development and disarmament is the growing ability of China to project power in North Korea to the exclusion of all other states.

In simpler language, as Kushibo has been writing for a while now, what we might be seeing is the absorption of North Korea into China, informally at first but maybe on a formal basis down the road. That would certainly solve South Korea's worries about the costs of reunification, both financial and social, and also be something of a soft landing for North Koreans who can struggle to adjust to the paradoxical emptiness of a free society. There would, of course, be its drawbacks.

The fate of Taiwan is also disconcerting. If you consider that a China in the midst of what was essentially a genocide with a GDP per capita of about $100 was able to render Taiwan a non-entity just forty years ago, Taiwan's future has to be uncertain with China's rise. There is a movement within Taiwan to reunite with China and even those who disagree might find themselves in a difficult position in the future.

For decades, American military power has guaranteed the safety of Taiwan, which developed into a wealthy democracy with a GDP per capita higher than that of Japan. Naturally, this has been a thorn in the side of China, considering that America from thousands of miles away can control what China can or can not do in the narrow Taiwan Straits that separate China and Taiwan. One of the major goals of the Chinese military is to be able to neutralize American power in the Taiwan Straits. Once possible, will America really go to war with China over a country it doesn't even recognize officially?

No comments: