US: Smooth Relations with China before It Goes Ballistic

By Lloyd R. Vasey. Lloyd R. Vasey is a senior strategist specializing Csis, a. public policy research institute expressed here are his own. | The Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 1995 | Go to article overview

US: Smooth Relations with China before It Goes Ballistic


Lloyd R. Vasey. Lloyd R. Vasey is a senior strategist specializing Csis, a. public policy research institute expressed here are his own., The Christian Science Monitor


A DRAMATIC shift in China's foreign policy is placing new emphasis on military power. Meanwhile, Washington's omnidirectional China policy is lacking the strategic focus and the acumen to address this decade's most critical security challenge: the management of relations with China.

The modernization of the military has become a high priority for Beijing, as evidenced by a sharp increase in military spending, aggressive acquisition of Russian arms, and a growing willingness on the part of China to resort to military threats in disputes with Asian neighbors.

China isn't limiting its military modernization to conventional arms. In a test conducted last May, it demonstrated its potential to launch mobile ballistic missiles far beyond its borders, reaching all of Asia and the American West Coast. Recent reports suggest that China is developing even more powerful strategic weapons, including a missile that can hit any target in the United States and a squadron of nuclear-powered submarines armed with multiple-warhead ballistic missiles.

But while China's military modernization is impressive, it is limited to selective war-fighting capabilities and will require a decade or longer before the armed forces arrive in the big leagues. In the meantime, Western policymakers continue to view Asian security in terms of balance of power and convoluted intellectual formulations.

A cunning political play

The Chinese, on the other hand, traditionally are geniuses at the art of power politics, especially as they seek to achieve political and military objectives. The ancient military philosopher Sun Tzu taught that the best way to conquer an opponent was to outwit him in strategy and diplomacy while simultaneously beating the war drums to signal the potential for devastating military action.

This year, China pursued this strategy deftly with both the Philippines and Taiwan. In its dispute with the Philippines over sovereignty of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, Chinese naval forces were deployed nearby to provide a credible threat. A louder drumbeat was heard when China test-fired several unarmed ballistic missiles into the ocean north of Taiwan - a warning to the island's growing independence movement.

Here Beijing has made it clear that it will use military force to ensure China's de jure sovereignty over Taiwan. In a speech last summer, Defense Minister Chi Hao-tian warned against "foreign meddling" that might encourage Taiwan's independence movement. Such statements should be taken seriously.

For more than four decades, China has threatened to invade Taiwan. But since the People's Republic of China lacked a credible military capability to overcome this island's formidable and technologically superior defense, these threats were not taken too seriously, especially when American policy firmly denounced the use of force.

But times have changed, and the topic of a possible military invasion of Taiwan is of high interest in Taipei. Some military experts now view a submarine blockade supported by coercive missile diplomacy as a realistic scenario. …

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