War with China?

March 15, 1996|By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- Here are a couple of examples of how interested and frightened Asian participant-observers see relations between the United States and China:

Writing in the context of continuing Indian-Chinese tensions in South Asia, the Times of India in Delhi said this of the American role in Asia since World War II:

''The United States' short-sighted policies are creating obstacles for a natural balance of power to emerge in Asia. Previous U.S. errors in Asia included pouring arms into China to support [Chiang Kai-shek's] Kuomintang, arms that went to the Communists. . . . Between 1970 and 1990, the U.S. supported China to counter the Soviet Union, which was already declining. The result China's power today. . . . The U.S. did not understand Vietnam was a dike against expansion of Chinese influence and engaged it in a ruinous war. . . . The present U.S. administration has not learned from history.''

Writing in the context of peace or war in East Asia, Lee Kwan Yew, the hard and brilliant founder of the Chinese country that is Singapore, said earlier this week:

''This present row between the United States and China has arisen because the Clinton administration, forgetting the past, touched a 'neuralgic' area: Taiwan and Tibet. The Chinese have thus responded ferociously. Unless the United States is prepared for war, it must accept that Taiwan is part of China, as is Tibet.''

Prepared for war with China? The Clinton administration is still unprepared for tomorrow's comment of the day.

Irrelevant quest

These are some of the givens in the incredibly dangerous situation being ignored by much of the American press in its quest to discover whether Pat Buchanan likes Jews or what Hillary Clinton knew and when she knew it.

The U.S. does not know what it is doing in China. And China does not understand the U.S., democracy or capitalism. There will be endless wars in Asia if the United States withdraws its military power. But it is insane to believe that the American people will support a war against China over ''freedom'' for Taiwan.

Because they are so big (China) and so powerful (America) the two mega-countries can usually plod or muddle through astounding ignorance that might destroy lesser nations. And this is how bad it's become:

First on the Chinese side: What started this madness of missiles plopping into the sea off Taiwan and I was in Taipei when it began last July was the visit of the island country's president, Lee Teng-hui, to the United States last spring. This happened because Mr. Lee applied for a visa to attend a reunion of his class at Cornell University. And that fact became public! Whatever was on Mr. Lee's mind, Americans generally and non-politically believe folks have a right to go to class reunions. The communists clinging to power in Beijing took this as an indication the United States government was backing ''creeping'' independence for Taiwan.

Second on the American side: Communism is collapsing in China, and the old men who imposed it there tried to save themselves by plunging into free-market capitalism. They were welcomed because they have cheap labor and a gigantic billion-buyer ''potential'' market. Then the capitalists, us, assumed the Chinese and their leadership cared about only one thing: money! Hey, do you think these people would go broke in a war when they can stay home and get rich? Yes, I do.

The Chinese care more about China than they do about money. That is what Lee Kwan Yew is trying to tell us. They would have invaded Taiwan long ago if they had had the military capability to cross the 100 miles of the Taiwan Strait. Now they can use missiles.

To them, Taiwan, which became a prosperous democracy only when the United States abandoned it to court China itself, has been a breakaway province since the day in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek lost a civil war to Mao Tse-tung and fled across the strait and called the island the Republic of China. Mao and his successors (and probably the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people) had and still have the same view of Taiwan that Abraham Lincoln had of South Carolina in 1860.

After the Washington-Beijing rapprochement in 1972, folks on all sides stopped talking about these things or at least they stopped yelling about them.

Then the opposition in Taiwan's new democracy not Lee Teng-hui but a new generation of opponents with only the loosest of ties to mainland China began talking about independence. China overreacted. The United States miscalculated. India worried about new Chinese invasions. Japan plotzed, to use the Yiddish, because it needs the U.S. military close at hand for protection against China. Without the U.S. Navy around, the Chinese would control the sea lanes Japan needs to get oil from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

This comedy of errors is more important than, say, Steve Forbes' one-man show. We have been down a road like this before, to 40 years of Cold War with the Soviet Union. The difference is this one could be hot!

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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