Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Why is the US the only one allowed to play?

When discussing whether China, India, Russia, or whoever might replace the US as a global power, there are almost always three implicit assumptions made:
1) The force of gravity at the Earth's surface is 9.8m/s2.

2) The speed of light in a vacuum is approximately 300 million m/s.

3) The United States of America is the only nation allowed the means to global power.
Two of these assumptions are reasonable. One is not. Can you guess which is which?

Believe it or not, just because China is building it's first modern military force since the 1700s, that it not in and of itself a bad thing. Now, we can have reasonable doubts as to what China will do with that military, but you cannot argue that China is not allowed to have those forces. There are two reasons for this: One, China isn't asking anyone's permission (wisely on their part.) Two, China is a nation that has suffered numerous invasion in the 20th century alone. Japan and Russia have both invaded, not to mention the history of western powers (including the US) forcing their commercial interests on the Chinese by military force.

We may think this is ancient history. To the Chinese generally, and especially to the Communist Party this is living history. The whole purpose of the Communist takeover can be summed up in Mao's words - "China has stood up." The legitimacy of the Communist regime resides on a) National unity, and b) Chinese sovereignty. There is little evidence that this is simply a "party" concern - any Chinese government would feel the same way. We're talking about historical facts here - the Chinese have no desire whatsoever to be the victims again.

As an important aside, none of this excuses Chinese treatment of the Uighurs or Tibetans. China's human rights record is abominable, and that's important to say. But once again, there is no reason to suppose that a Democratic China would free Tibet or Xinjiang. Sun Yat-Sen had a map on his office of what he considered Chinese territory which encompassed everything from the Arctic circle south to Singapore. The CPC doesn't have anything like those ambitions, judging from their record.

Back to the main point here. The discussion of China's power is all to often framed as China's power being by definition a threat to US interests. That is to say, the discussion assumes that only the US is allowed to have a blue-water navy in the Pacific, or supersonic fighter aircraft, etc etc. Read enough of articles about the China Threat and you see the same assertions over and over - China's building new submarines, and new destroyers, and could CONQUER TAIWAN IN FIVE YEARS!!!! AAAAHHH!!! Of course, we're bizarrely imputing the worst motives to a country which has shown - despite the above-mentioned abominable human rights record - considerable intelligence in foreign affairs since Mao died.

The US cannot have a monopoly on global power forever. However, that is exactly the stated policy of the United States (maintaining power forever), and it's the unstated assumption behind the castigating of China. I personally believe that China will democratize long before it has the potential to take the US on in global power terms. But even if I'm wrong there's a simple point to make - the US, and the world need to make room for China (and India, and others) peacefully. This doesn't mean we surrender our principles or our own rights. But it does mean we don't overreact to every new weapon the Chinese make or buy. The alternative to a peaceful accomodation is, quite simply, the next war between major powers - World War III, for real.

There is nothing - so far - that Beijing has done, or threatened to do, that is worth that.

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