Avoiding disaster while dealing with the China threat

Every so often a rash of articles appears warning about the dangerous rise of China. Increasingly tho — at least in more liberal publications — the rise of China is seen as inevitable and attention is focused on how to accomodate the new power rather than on the threat to American control.

One recent example is James Hoge writing in Foreign Affairs, "A Global Power Shift in the Making". He writes:
Major shifts of power between states, not to mention regions, occur infrequently and are rarely peaceful. In the early twentieth century, the imperial order and the aspiring states of Germany and Japan failed to adjust to each other. The conflict that resulted devastated large parts of the globe. Today, the transformation of the international system will be even bigger and will require the assimilation of markedly different political and cultural traditions. This time, the populous states of Asia are the aspirants seeking to play a greater role. Like Japan and Germany back then, these rising powers are nationalistic, seek redress of past grievances, and want to claim their place in the sun. Asia's growing economic power is translating into greater political and military power, thus increasing the potential damage of conflicts. Within the region, the flash points for hostilities Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and divided Kashmir have defied peaceful resolution. Any of them could explode into large-scale warfare that would make the current Middle East confrontations seem like police operations. In short, the stakes in Asia are huge and will challenge the West's adaptability.
And he's right. Even the worst horrors we've seen in the last ten years — the Rwandan genocide, the sanctions against Iraq, the Congo civil war — could pale next to war in East or South Asia. Of particular interest to Americans, there's no question that the USA would involve itself in any war over Taiwan or in Korea. Tho the chance of such wars is relatively low, the situations are volatile enough that even a minor incident could quickly escalate into a crisis.

The USA itself may set off such a crisis thru its belligerency against North Korea or by bringing into the open its support for de facto Taiwan independence and military containment of China. Starting under Clinton and accelerating rapidly after 9/11, the USA has quietly moved to hem in China with a ring of alliances (the most important being Japan, India, and Australia) and military bases and agreements (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, and soon Indonesia added to 60-year-old deployments in Japan and South Korea).

Hoge is the first mainstream commentator I've seen to acknowledge this, and he makes a strong case that we have to start thinking about more constructive ways to manage the transition to a China-centered Asia. But his suggestions for accomplishing this are, to say the least, inadequate to the task. His main ideas seem to be sending more staff to the US embassy in China and admitting China to the G8. (The Group of 8 is an organization of the rich countries plus Russia that holds an annual high-level meeting and doesn't do much else.)

In other words, Hoge isn't even beginning to confront the major divergence of interests between China and the USA that is already increasing tensions. The biggest issue is, as always, Taiwan. China claims the island as its own, and officially Washington agrees. But the USA also views Taiwan as an important strategic asset which, if China reaquired peacefully, would significantly expand Chinese geopolitical and economic power. Neither side is willing to back down, and some right-wing forces in the USA are even pushing for a "re-evaluation" of the official policy accepting Beijing's claim to Taiwan. Such a step would be disastrous.

Other potential points of contention include the USA's massive military presence surrounding China, American control of Asia's major shipping lanes, China's claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea, US support for Japanese remilitarization, and control over natural resources, especially oil.

If open conflict comes, it will be over these strategic issues. But the fundamental question is whether or not the USA can maintain its hegemony over Asia thru alliances with local elites in all the countries around China save North Korea and Myanmar. Will these alliances hold up, or will Asian elites begin to see realignment with China as better serving their interests? If they do, will the USA take destabilizing measures to wrench their allies back under American protection? If it comes to that, I fear for both Asia and America.

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