Thursday, July 31, 2003

China: a brief meditation

What prompts this brief meditation is this article about China's new buildup of short-range missiles to be aimed at Taiwan.

Here's an excerpt from the beginning.

China Adds to Missiles Aimed at Taiwan, Pentagon Says (Update1)
July 30 (Bloomberg) -- China is on a path to increase by half over the next few years the number of short-range ballistic missiles arrayed against Taiwan, a Pentagon report says.

China has about 450 CSS-6 and CSS-7 missiles facing Taiwan across the South China Sea. That number is expected to grow by 75 a year "over the next few years,'' the report said. The missiles are mobile and have ranges of 372 miles (600 kilometers) and 186 miles (300 kilometers), respectively.

"As Beijing increases the accuracy and lethality of its conventional ballistic missile arsenal, a growing and significant challenge is posed to U.S. forces in the Western Pacific, as well as to allies and friends, including Taiwan,'' the report said.

Keep in mind that China's huge, and to my mind, it's got expansionist tendencies. It's already gnawed its way through Tibet-- a country that has effectively become Chinese (the Korean abbot of the temple I've attended in Germantown, MD, Master Shin Go Seong, says of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, "He should've stayed in Tibet!"), and India, often an irritant to Chinese ambitions, has officially acknowledged Chinese hegemony there and promised to monitor Tibetan dissent in its own borders (hint: Dharamsala). While China and the US are supposedly in agreement about a "one China" policy, the reality is obviously otherwise. If there is only one China, it wouldn't aim missiles at itself, and the US wouldn't be doing its part to help supply Taiwan with defense tech.

What I thought was very interesting about this article was the Israel connection:

Among other disclosures, the Pentagon said China "has procured from Israel a significant number of Harpy anti-radiation systems.'' The Harpy is a kamikaze drone produced by Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd. that's equipped with anti-radar sensors and a bomb capable of attacking Taiwanese air-defense radar. The drone would dive into a radar station.

The Harpy was used during July 2002 Chinese military drills in the region opposite Taiwan, according to press reports but the Pentagon had not previously confirmed the Israeli sale.

"The Harpy detects, attacks and destroys enemy radar emitters, hitting them with high accuracy,'' IAI says on its web site. "It effectively suppresses hostile surface-to-air missiles and radar sites for long durations, loitering above enemy territory for hours.'' The drone is already in use with several air forces, IAI said.

It's a complex world, and I'm still only just figuring this out. Whether Israel deserved as much money as we were giving it was a question I personally tabled after September 11. While I by no means view Israel as an innocent party in the larger issue of Mideast strife, I agree with friends and pundits who consider Israel to be an island of fairly secular Western-style democracy in the middle of a gaggle of angry Muslim theocracies. This in itself makes Israel worth defending. If certain Muslim countries were to adopt a similar model, I'd include them in that statement as well.

But the sale of defense tech-- whether it's the US to Taiwan, or the USSR to Afghanistan of old, or Israel to China-- is a disturbing issue. I'm not sure what the best answer is to this question, but there's a sick potential irony lying in wait if our own men and women are brought down in combat with the aid of American-made defense tech. How should we view Israel's sale to the Chinese, which works at cross-purposes to our sales to Taiwan? Sorry, but I take a dim view.

In the meantime, we've got this peninsular chess game to worry about. How to squeeze North Korea? Many Koreabloggers are betting on putting pressure on China. How to protect Taiwan, then, as China gets irritated by US pressure?

We are, once again, in the thicket of unintended consequences. The world is far too interconnected for us to gloss over the possibility that actions in one region may directly affect events in another, far off. An arms race, however, was a no-brainer of a pre-war prediction. This article confirms that China is (or has been) on its way. And as we see in the news quite frequently these days, North Korea is ratcheting the game to a new level.

North Korea's simultaneous ally and enemy is time. The longer South Korea plays its role as enabler and the US refuses to act more forcefully, the more nukes the North can manufacture and sell (or stock). At the same time, the longer the North waits, the more its citizens starve and the further its economy collapses. Nothing lasts forever; that includes the peninsular stalemate.

At this point, I think the stalemate is more likely to end in war than in a sudden, dramatic collapse of the NK regime. I am not sure which way China will lean should conflict arise on the peninsula. If it does indeed respect its "mutual defense pact" with the North, we may see June 1950 all over again, but this time, the South will have much, much more to lose. That would be tragic. If, however, China realizes that its business commitments to the US are worth keeping, it may, at the crucial moment, look the other way.

But Asians don't follow simple yes/no behaviors-- a fact that frustrates so many Westerners seeking black-and-white patterns. I doubt that China's future course will follow as neat a path as what I've just described. It will more likely try to find a way to retain vital economic ties while doing its part (quietly) to aid North Korea in its future time of need.

Europe actually figures prominently in this situation. Though I don't have the statistics right at hand, my impression is that European investment in China has been a lot more aggressive than American investment. US policy had allowed itself to become tied to the question of human rights, which often complicates our dealings with China. If China pays heed to its business ties, it may pay greater heed to the European wing, not the American, simply because that's where most of the money's coming from (Koreabloggers & others with stats, please write me, so I can update/correct this post). A further wrinkle is that certain American tech firms are selling China the software it needs to monitor its Internet infrastructure-- in other words, some of our own corporations are, through business dealings, abetting the repression of the Chinese citizenry. This has to stop.

The American political party that claims to be simultaneously pro-Big Business and pro-Old Time Morality needs to look deeply at itself and question this inconsistency. Business for business' sake is far too simplistic an approach to take in world affairs, especially in dealing with as large and complex an entity as China. The free market, however much I believe in its effectiveness, is NOT an automatic guarantor of Western values. At the same time, the party that claims to be pro-modernity, pro-diversity and pro-human rights needs to question whether naive idealism is appropriate as a political platform to carry overseas. In my opinion, business is one of the most effective weapons we have for exporting the trappings of American culture. It is possible, though not always probable (cf. my meandering essay on Western values and physical space), for us to use those business channels to pump in a large measure of American values. This, to my mind, is a better, more subtle approach to the question of human rights in places like China than moralistic flag-waving.

There is a school of thought that views the Middle Eastern question as a distraction: the real issue, in a decade or so, will be the rise of China, a superpower currently running a morbidly fascinating politico-economical experiment. It may well be that how China deals with the NK situation will be an indicator of where it thinks it's headed. Stay tuned.

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