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Bush's Reckless Talk Gives China the Jitters

7 April 2002

Growing unease is beginning to show from behind the facade of celestial calm that President Jiang Zemin and China's collective leadership like to project to the outside world.

China is facing numerous threats. First, the growing worry in Beijing that the Bush administration has decided to adopt a more confrontational policy toward China. The recent leaking of U.S. plans to use nuclear weapons in the event of a major clash over Taiwan and/or North Korea, as well as President George Bush's extraordinary reckless and dangerous "axis of evil speech," caused great consternation across Asia, especially in Beijing.

A recently concluded naval entente between the U.S. and India is seen in Beijing as a further move by Washington to strategically isolate China and threaten its maritime interests. India is now acquiring state-of-the-art naval technology from Russia, including, likely, an aircraft carrier, two nuclear submarines, long-range maritime bombers and powerful anti-ship cruise missiles that have only two possible uses: either against China, or against the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The U.S. has been winking at Israel's sale of advanced nuclear technology, conventional weapons, and electronic technology to India, while blasting China for providing limited military help to Pakistan and Iran.

This column recently learned the CIA has increased monitoring and agent activities in the northern frontier regions of Laos and Burma, both of which are considered important military areas by China.

Recent threats by the Bush administration against North Korea are taken by China as a potential threat to its northern borders. Thanks to the "axis of evil" speech, reconciliation between the two Koreas has been derailed, at least for now, much to Seoul's anger and embarrassment.

Sensitive Border Region

On top of all this, the government in Beijing is increasingly concerned by the establishment of a constellation of permanent U.S. military bases in neighbouring Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia - right next to China's most sensitive western border region, Sinkiang, the centre of China's nuclear program and where there is unrest among ethnic Muslim Uighers. Just to the south lies another strategic western province, Tibet. The last time U.S. military forces came too close to China's border - during the Korean war - Beijing sent 500,000 troops to drive American forces back from the Yalu River.

Though China's leadership will not say so publicly, in private fears are being expressed that the Bush administration is becoming increasingly bellicose. Some critics say even borderline irrational. Bush's war talk and mammoth increase in defence spending have convinced many here that somehow those old Cold War demons - the "Pentagon military-industrial revanchist, imperialist ruling circles" as the communists used to say, have risen from the grave.

The current bloody Mideast crisis is also unnerving Asian governments, many of them friends of the U.S.: there is widespread incomprehension at how the world's sole superpower appears to be led around by its appendage, Israel, and unable to even impose minimal UN resolutions on Ariel Sharon's government while threatening to invade Iraq for defying UN resolutions. Bush's comatose, feeble, finger-waving response to the Mideast crisis has left Asians wondering about the focus, priorities, and mindset of the White House. Making matters worse, Bush - who calls himself a free trader - recently imposed steel tariffs that caused a storm of anger in China and South Korea.

In contrast to Washington's swaggering assertiveness, China's cautious leaders have focused on building good trade relations with the U.S., and attracting more badly needed foreign investment. The anniversary of the nasty fracas last year caused by the collision of a prying U.S. military aircraft and a Chinese fighter was ignored by China's state media, a sure sign Beijing wants to keep relations on an even keel. The only exception to China's benign behaviour has been the occasional threat towards Taiwan backed by choreographed movements of military forces.

China is not ready for any foreign confrontations. Its entry into the World Trade Organization threatens the livelihood of 850 million inefficient farmers who can't compete with grains from the U.S., Canada and Australia. Some 200 million more workers may soon be laid off by dying state industries that are due for closure. China's big four banks are wobbling dangerously. In short, China is performing the last and most perilous part of its high wire trapeze leap from socialism to the free market. Much could yet go wrong.

There is also growing worry here that the Bush administration's super hawks will try to take advantage of China's self-absorption and internal economic problems to advance U.S. interests in the Western Pacific and Central Asia. Hardliners are raising alarms about U.S. intentions, claiming once again that Washington is surrounding China with hostile forces. Beijing is convinced Bush's proposed anti-missile defence shield is aimed directly at neutralizing China's small force of elderly ICBMs. As a result, China has been forced to speed up its program to develop modern, mobile ICBMs, possibly with multiple warheads.

China, as always in its long history, would prefer to mind its own business. But the outside world may just not let the Middle Kingdom alone.

Eric Margolis, Beijing
Published in the Toronto Sun © 2002, Canoe, a division of Netgraphe Inc

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