by Eric Margolis © 1997 Eric Margolis
SAN FRANCISCO - Behind the pageantry of Britain's withdrawal from Hong Kong lay a far more significant geopolitical event. The lowering of the Union Jack signalled the beginning of the decline of America's strategic domination of East Asia.
After World War II, the United States became heir to the defunct British Empire, which once ruled a quarter of the globe. Pax Americana, enforced by the US Navy, replaced the Pax Britannica. The Pacific became an American lake.
The US Navy's long involvement in East Asia, beginning with the famous China Station and Yangtze River patrols of the 1930's, grew to the extent that much of the Asian littoral, from Korea to Singapore, was dominated by American military power.
The return of Hong Kong to China marks a sea change in the Asian strategic balance. China is now clearly emerging as a major world power: its huge economy is expected to at least equal America's within 20 years. As a result, China must inevitably challenge America's hitherto undisputed military superiority in East and North Asia. However, geopolitical challenge does not necessarily mean war. It means two great powers may have to learn to share the same space.
Contrary to the current wave of anti-Chinese hysteria now gripping America, China is not about to threaten the United States. Its 3-million man armed forces are huge but obsolescent, with little capability to project power beyond China's borders. China has only seven nuclear-armed ICBM's capable of reaching North America, and a modest brown-water navy with 1960's technology. Less than 100 of China's 4,000 fighters are of modern design.
But China is steadily modernizing its military, as befits a world power. China aims to develop sufficient offensive power to dominate the waters around it, notably the resource-rich South China Sea. China's planned acquisition from Russia of two Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with long-ranged SSN-22 cruise missiles, and four Kilo-class attack subs, will eventually lessen the operational freedom of the carrier battlegroups of the US 7th Fleet.
We should not be overly alarmed by China's ambitions. It is normal and inevitable for all great powers to influence their region. Calls by American conservatives for "containment" of China are illogical and unrealistic. Why should US fleets have the right to exercise the Pax Americana in the China Sea while China's fleets do not?
However, China's military modernization does threaten three nations: Taiwan, Japan and Russia. If the US and China ever clash again, it will likely be over Taiwan, which is a vital interest to China, but not to the United States. Both sides need exercise extreme caution here. China's rising power will make underarmed Japan increasingly nervous.
Most ominously, China and Russia share a long border that China has only grudgingly accepted. Russia's Far East provinces have a mere 25 million inhabitants; their only links to Russia's distant heartland are thousands of miles of vulnerable rail lines.
In 1984, I was told by Chinese military intelligence that China's forces could take Russia's Far East ports of Vladivostok and Petropavlosk "within a week." Today, Chinese illegal immigrants are infiltrating into Russia's Far East. Growing Chinese military and demographic power will increasingly threaten Russia's always uncertain hold on the Pacific, and pose a grave strategic challenge to Moscow.
CIA estimates China will reach South Korea's current per capita energy consumption in 30-40 years. By then, China and Asia's other oncoming superpower, India, will have a combined daily demand of 120 million barrels of oil. The world's current oil consumption is 70 million barrels daily. Competition for dwindling energy, mineral and food resources will likely dominate world affairs in the next generation.
It is arrogant, and downright dangerous, to think the United States alone has unique right to these resources. While many in Congress and the media warn ominously of China's designs on the South China Sea's underwater oil, the US continues to exploit artificially cheap Mideast oil and treat Arab nations much as Britain did its 19th century protectorates.
Americans wring their hands over the fate of Hong Kong's democracy - which never really existed - a matter over which they have no influence. Yet in the Mideast, most of whose states are under near-total American domination, feudal monarchies or military dictatorships are the order of the day. Why should America castigate China over human rights when Washington allows its satraps in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain to routinely violate them?
China believes Washington is using human rights and Hong Kong as tools to keep China on the defensive. This policy is short-sighted and won't work. It manages only to poison relations between Washington and Beijing without improving China's human rights or limiting its growing power. Conservatives who demand containment of China, and liberals who anguish over its human rights, are both equally wrong.
Unlike the British, the US has had long, respectful and relatively honorable relations with the Chinese. Of course the US fought China in Korea, but the US also fought two wars against Britain. Long-term interests transcend wars.
Old timers will still recall "oil for the lamps of China," and Gen.Chennault's magnificent Flying Tigers. America and post- communist China that is rapidly evolving, should be major trading partners and strategic allies. The 2.1 million Chinese community in North America will serve as a bridge between the two mutually respecting cultures.
America must learn to accept China's inevitable entry onto the world stage with good grace and tact. Its current churlish behavior threatens to lay the seeds of a new Asian Cold War.
Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.
[European leaders make no secret of the fact that China is their most
effective counterweight to U.S. hegemony.--Stephen Glain, "Bullets
for Beijing: The big EU powers are moving to lift the ban on arms
sales to China in a frontal challenge to U.S. policy and power in Asia,"
Newsweek International, August 9, 2004]
["No country should exclude itself from the international human rights
development process or view itself as the incarnation of human rights
that can reign over other countries and give orders to the others,"
Premier Wen Jiabao's cabinet declared, three days after the State
Department criticized China in its annual human rights report. . . .
A number of other countries criticized in the U.S. report expressed a
similar view, that the Bush administration has compromised on human
rights and has no standing to chastise others.--Edward Cody, "China, Others Criticize U.S. Report on Rights: Double Standard at State
Dept. Alleged," Washington Post, March 4, 2005]
Keith Bradsher, "China Economy Rising at Pace to Rival U.S.," New York Times,
June 28, 2005
[When analysts and economic historians look back, this summer may well
prove to be the turning point in Chinese-American relations, the time
when America chose short-range paranoia over rational
Summer of Discontent," New York Times, August 11, 2005]
Copyright © 1997 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved