Back on the China front

Posted: Jul 16, 2002 12:00 AM
An old stand-by in the silent-movie era of Westerns was a screen that displayed the words "Meanwhile, back at the ranch" to warn that some, usually dangerous dramatic twist was about to befall the heroine while her cowboy was elsewhere on a posse or fighting the Indians. Today, while much of America's national security energies are focused on the global war against Islamist and other terrorists, there is growing reason to be concerned about what is meanwhile afoot on the China front. For example: o The Defense Department publicly released a report last week that painted a decidedly ominous picture of China's ambitions to: dominate Asia, compel Taiwan to reunify with the mainland and prevent the United States from interfering with either objective. As the Washington Times reported on July 13, "Recent statements about Taiwan and China's military buildup 'may reflect an increasing willingness to consider the use of force to achieve unification [although] Beijing's current strategy is not to seek an invasion of Taiwan, as many U.S. military leaders have suggested. Instead, the Chinese government is working on a 'coercive' strategy of threats, intimidation, missile attacks and a naval blockade of Taiwan." Such coercive intentions offer the most benign explanation for the array of new weapon systems China has been fielding, many of them bought from Russia. These include: advanced SU-30 fighter aircraft, modern air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and as many as 350 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. According to the Times, the Pentagon report finds if such weapons were actually to be used, "any Chinese attack on Taiwan would be designed to be a rapid strike before any other countries could come to its defense." The Chinese are, however, preparing as well for what they consider to be an "inevitable" conflict with the United States -- often referred to by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) as "the main enemy" and the one country that could (and, according to President Bush, would) do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. In a "China Brief" published on July 8 by the Jamestown Foundation, Dr. Richard Fisher, arguably the Nation's preeminent independent expert on the PRC's military capabilities and activities, writes that Beijing is determined to be able to sink any American aircraft carrier that might be sent (as was done in 1995) to aid the Chinese democracy on Taiwan. [Dr. Fischer quotes in this context Major General Huang Bin, a professor at the PLA National Defense University, in Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao daily newspaper on May 13: "Missiles, aircraft, and submarines all are means that can be used to attack an aircraft carrier. We have the ability to deal with an aircraft carrier that dares to get into our range of fire. Once we decide to use force against Taiwan, we definitely will consider an intervention by the United States. The United States likes vain glory; if one of its aircraft carrier should be attacked and destroyed, people in the United States would begin to complain and quarrel loudly, and the U.S. president would find the going harder and harder." ] The Defense Department report noted that China was working to improve its ability to threaten the United States mainland, as well. Toward that end, it has in train a two-hundred percent quantitative increase in the number of ballistic missiles pointed at this country and myriad qualitative improvements (for example, considerably longer-range, multiple warheads and decoys or other "penetration aids"). As PRC spokesmen have, from time to time in the past, warned of attacks on Los Angeles and other American cities in the event the United States came to Taiwan's aid during a conflict with the PRC, this growing menace cannot safely be ignored. The same applies, by the way, to threats arising from China's two other distinctions: its status as the most formidable cyber-warfare adversary we face and as the world's most assiduous proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and related technology. o A second report, issued on July 16 by the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Security Review Commission has reached no less troubling conclusions about economic relations with the People's Republic. It comes amidst news articles that the Chinese Communists have, yet again, disappointed free trade advocates by failing to live up to China's obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization. As part of a generally dour assessment of the seriously imbalanced trade relationship with the PRC (currently running an annual deficit of approximately $87 billion), the Commission warned of the security risks associated with Beijing's efforts to raise some $40 billion in foreign capital markets -- including roughly $14 billion in the United States. American investors, reeling from declining portfolio values elsewhere, are likely to be even more furious when they learn that their funds may be financing China's threatening military build-up. Only one commissioner -- a former Clinton Under Secretary of Commerce, William Reinsch, who now works for the China lobby -- dissented from the majority view that these practices constituted threats to American security as well as economic interests. o The nexus between these two is especially evident in the activities of Chinese businessmen like Li Kashing who has, according to the Washington Times, been identified by U.S. intelligence as having "close ties to senior Chinese Communist Party leaders." Li -- whose cargo shipping company, Hutchison Wampoa, secured long-term leases at either end of the Panama Canal two years ago -- is hard at work acquiring a presence for his country at other strategic "choke points" around the world. These include the Caribbean's Bahamas, the Mediterranean's Malta and the Persian Gulf's Straits of Hormuz. Despite its present preoccupation with the war on terrorism, the Bush Administration cannot afford to ignore, let alone to misperceive, the dangers emanating from a China experiencing growing internal social and economic turmoil, a disproportionately young male -- and therefore potentially more aggressive -- population, increasing demand for imported energy and what may prove to be another messy Communist leadership transition. There is plenty going on back at "the ranch" and the stakes there are getting higher every day.