Poverty of vision in East Asia

August 16, 1999|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- East Asia is a place where America's role has become increasingly equivocal, the result of a poverty of vision concerning the role an outside power should, or indeed can, take in the region's affairs.

The United States was in the Far East as a trading power throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, which drew it into a rivalry with Japan that ended in war. What does the United States now want in East Asia? Trade and commercial advantage, obviously. However, many talk as though Washington has some appropriate guiding or supervisory role in the political affairs of the region.

It is useless to think this when East Asia is dominated geographically by Japan, the world's second-ranking industrial power, and by China, its most populous nation, which also possesses an ancient cultural and political primacy.

In the long term, those two will decide what happens to East Asia, even if South Korea and Taiwan, world-ranking industrial economies, also have their say. The interest of the United States surely is in constructive relations among these states, and to see that America is itself at peace with them. To propose more is to look for trouble.

Take the problem of Taiwan and China: Whether Taiwan belongs under the political sovereignty of the Chinese nation (or empire; it is useful to recall that China until the 20th century considered itself an imperial power) has to be settled between the Chinese and the modern Taiwanese state -- which means, since Taiwan has become a democracy, with the Taiwan electorate.

Marginal relation

Taiwan's relationship to China has always been marginal, in that the original Malayan aboriginal population was displaced by mainland Chinese people from China's Fujian region. Because of its difficult terrain, that province itself tended to be isolated from the rest of China and, over the years, was the main source of Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia and elsewhere overseas.

This Fujian migration accounts for the origin of some 80 percent of Taiwan's present population, the rest being mainland Chinese who arrived with Chiang Kai-shek's armies in 1949 (or their descendants) -- politically dominant after 1949 -- plus the surviving Malaysian aboriginal population.

Despite intermittent control by Portugal (beginning in 1590), Spain, the Netherlands and Japan -- the last from 1895 to 1945 -- the island and its dependencies are historically Chinese but now compose a distinct China that is a democracy.

The Communist authorities may describe Taiwan as a rebel province, but Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui has recently chosen to describe it as a state in need of state-to-state relations with Beijing. This is an accurate statement, but a provocative one.

Neither Washington nor the international community has anything to gain from pushing an advanced and democratic society back under the control of a politically retrograde Communist party dictatorship (as they recently did with Hong Kong, compelled to substitute submission to China's dictatorship for a British colonial regime).

They have an interest in mediation between the two, and even in interposition, should the two sides approach military confrontation. Since China almost certainly is incapable of conquering Taiwan, its military threat should not be exaggerated: A clash would anyway have devastating consequences for China's trade and its relations with foreign investors and the international economy.

In its currently disoriented condition, threatened by what some in the leadership may recognize as a popular withdrawal of "heaven's" mandate, the Communist authorities would court disaster with an attack on Taiwan.

However China's leadership is not perhaps in a condition for entirely rational decisions. Its violent reaction to the emergence of the xenophobic Falun Gong sect is part of what seems a larger explosion of anger at outside provocations. These include Taiwan's claims, the Belgrade embassy bombing and the dangerous demonizing of China by some elements in the U.S. political and policy communities. There is uncertainty over where China should turn.

Interests, risks

Something of the same may be said of Washington. It is time for both administration and Congress to halt the meddling and interference, and recall exactly what are the limits of U.S. interests in China, its actual influence there and the risks that may lie in the situation.

In that respect, one should take seriously a recent and important Washington Post report by John Pomfret, describing the new directions taken in Chinese military thinking. Recognizing China's material inability to fight the United States on the high-technology terms set by the U.S., Chinese military intellectuals are discussing innovative forms of "unrestricted war," waged in many dimensions, including financial manipulation, cyber war, drug trafficking, environmental attack and terrorism.

They recognize, for example, that China cannot compete with the United States in missile/counter-missile theater defense systems, such as those America proposes to build for Taiwan and Japan.

On the other hand, as one military theorist says, "If you use nontraditional means to fight, like those employed by financiers to bring down financial systems, then you have a chance." Perhaps the Chinese military classic, Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," is being rethought.

William Pfaff is a syndicated international affairs columnist.

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