Op-Eds by Jim

Warily Watching China

February 23, 1999
by James Webb, The New York Times

An oddly nonlinear debate has emerged in Washington regarding the implications of China’s growing power. Those who are concerned mainly with national defense measure tangibles like China’s leaps in military technology, its nuclear and military assistance to other nations and its frequent saber-rattling over various East Asian issues. For them, China is a serious and looming threat. By contrast, those officials whose principal concerns are improving American-Chinese relations and reciprocal trade reason that the growth of Chinese power is to be expected, that it is defensive rather than expansionist, and that China has no intention of competing with the United States on a global scale.

But whether or not China becomes a global threat in the future is irrelevant to its activities in Asia today. China is definitely on the move, and its full intentions are far from clear. Last month both he Guangming Daily, a Chinese newspaper, and Taiwan’s South China Morning Post reported that the Chinese air force had altered its defensive posture to one focusing mainly on attack readiness, including joint operations involving ground and naval forces.

Having benefited from years of technology transfers, many of them from American corporations, the Chinese air force now possesses anti-electronic jamming and air-refueling capabilities as well as greatly improved weapon systems that include air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, high-precision guided bombs and improved firing control equipment.

As the news reports indicated, the Chinese have succeeded in building the armed forces through science and technology, and are ready to fight regional battles, including ground and sea assaults.

This change in strategy has been accompanied by concrete military action. It has been widely reported that the Chinese are dramatically increasing the number of short-range ballistic missiles along the country’s coastline near Taiwan, ostensibly in protest of the American declaration that Taiwan would be included in a regional antimissile system.

Over the past several months the Chinese have also stepped up construction of a military base in the Paracel Islands, 260 miles off the coast of DaNang, Vietnam. The base includes a 7,000-foot runway capable of handling a wide array of combat and refueling aircraft. In addition, the Chinese have expanded an installation in the Spratly Islands off the coast of the Philippines. This installation, according to the Philippine military, now appears to hold a helipad, radar, gun emplacements and a four-story structure whose size belies Chinese claims that they have built shelters for fisherman there.

Both the Paracels and the Spratlys are contested territories, neither of them recognized as Chinese under international law. With respect to the most recent overt threat to Taiwan, the Chinese protest is disingenuous on its face. The Chinese Government knows that we should no more apologize for including Taiwan in plans for missile defense than we did for including South Korea in similar plans. Our having agreed in principle that Taiwan might someday rejoin China does not mean that we would ever allow such a unification to be coerced.

If the reports of bases in the Paracels and Spratlys are accurate, they present a far more serious threat to regional security. For one thing, they are on islands not recognized under international law to be Chinese. Building military bases on foreign territory, or on territory that is disputed under international law, is a clear act of aggression. That these islands were uninhabited before the appearance of the Chinese military does not lessen the importance of this historic principle.

In addition, these particular islands sit athwart East Asia’s major sea lanes. This water route is a superhighway of international commerce for China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and the Russian port of Vladivostok. Japan, which imports all its oil, is particularly vulnerable to the interdiction of this maritime route, as it is a key leg for ships going through the Malacca and Lombok Straits to and from the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

Taiwan itself depends heavily on this sea passage. Coupled with China’s recent expansion of its navy, its military control of the Paracels and the Spratlys would constitute a threat to most of the ship-borne commerce moving into and out of east Asia. It could also be used to threaten Japan, and as part of a larger effort to cut off Taiwan.

Another concern is that China has been developing a strategic axis with the Muslim world for more than a decade, as evidenced most clearly by its continuing military assistance to Iran and its role in helping Pakistan develop a nuclear capability. The bases in the Spratlys and Paracels could permit swift military intervention into regions of Southeast Asia that include

many heavily Muslim populations, particularly in Malaysia, the southern Philippines (Mindanao is said by American intelligence experts to rival Syria’s Bekaa Valley as a training center for Muslim terrorists) — and in Indonesia, where memories still linger of Chinese backing of an ill-fated coup d’etat in the 1960’s.

China’s actions in a region that has relied for decades on a delicate balance of power should stir the United States to respond immediately. With the reduced size of the American Navy, east Asia has become more and more nervous in the face of China’s growing power.
This unease increased after President Clinton’s puzzling announcement during his visit last year that the Administration viewed China as a strategic partner in the region. If Chinese bases are left unchecked, the possibilities of misperceptions regarding American intentions — even by China itself — will multiply. These kinds of misperceptions can cause wars, as when, during a January 1950 speech to the National Press Club, Secretary of State Dean Acheson unwittingly encouraged the attack that began the Korean War by failing to include South Korea inside the American zone of interest. Only the United States can firmly confront the Chinese on this issue. Contrary to internal issues like human rights and gray areas like assisting Pakistan, Chinese bases in the Paracels and the Spratlys are clearly matters with international implications. The United States should lose no time in examining China’s expansion of its installations on these islands and, if appropriate, questioning Chinese intentions. And the American Government should keep in mind that the consequence of not confronting China today might be a far more dangerous world in the years to come.