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China, US: one crisis to another

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Issue 1744


China, US: one crisis to another

By Alex Callinicos

THE SPY plane crisis may be over, but tensions between the US and China are likely to grow. The commentator George Friedman wrote after the crisis that “this period will be remembered as the end of the post Cold War period and the beginning of a new international relations era”.

NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia proved to be a turning point. The rulers of Russia and China were faced with a US administration that made it clear it would pursue its interests around the world without taking their views into account.

For China the message was brutally pressed home when a US missile destroyed its embassy in Belgrade. Despite mass protests in China, the Beijing regime found itself, in the face of US global military superiority, unable to retaliate. The spy plane crisis gave China’s rulers the opportunity to wipe away some of this humiliation. During the crisis Friedman pointed out that “only two US military responses are possible-a commando operation to rescue the crew and a military strike against some Chinese asset.

“The former would be time consuming to mount and dangerous. The latter would turn a single incident into near war. The United States will do neither. China is immune to US military action, precisely the atmosphere Beijing wants to project.”

So, after some belligerent language at the start of the crisis, the Bush administration had no choice but to cut a deal with China that involved the US using ambiguous formulations that-depending on which side you’re on-might or might not count as a formal apology.

The media like to depict China as a “superpower”. This is nonsense. In economic and military capabilities China is far behind the US. Nevertheless China’s rulers do want to establish themselves as the dominant power in Asia. This necessarily creates a potential conflict with the US, which maintains substantial forces in the region and is the guarantor of the island state of Taiwan, which China claims as its territory.

Hainan Island, where the American EP-3E spy plane crash landed, is a key point in China’s Great Power aspirations. Not only is there a naval base and a space launch facility on the island, but the headquarters of the Chinese South Sea Fleet is immediately to the north in Zhanjiang.

China wants to expand its navy till it dominates the South China Sea. It has claims on the oil-rich Spratly Islands in this area. The security consultants Stratfor speculate that the EP-3E was looking for signs of two new submarines the Chinese navy is developing. One of these, the Type 093, can fire cruise missiles underwater and “threaten the pre-eminent American weapons system in the region-the aircraft carrier”.

China’s rulers haven’t forgotten their biggest confrontation with the US in recent years. When they carried out live missile tests close to Taiwan in 1996, the Clinton administration deployed a carrier battle group just off the Chinese coast.

Taiwan remains the biggest flashpoint in US-China relations. Beijing reserves the right to invade Taiwan, but China’s weaknesses in both naval and air power mean in practice such an operation would be very hard to mount. In compensation China is building up its missiles on the coastline facing Taiwan.

The Taiwanese government has requested permission from the US to buy four destroyers equipped with the Aegis anti-missile system that would allow it to counter this threat. China is making threatening noises about this sale. Not only would the Aegis destroyers put China at a disadvantage compared to Taiwan, but they could be integrated into the missile defence system that George W Bush is committed to introducing.

Both China and Russia regard this plan to protect the US from missiles as intended to give the US the capacity to launch a first nuclear strike against them. The outcome of the crisis leaves Bush and his advisers in a quandary. During his election campaign he presented China as a “strategic competitor” rather than, as Bill Clinton argued, a “strategic partner”. Now powerful forces in Congress want him to cancel a trip to China planned for October and to supply Taiwan with the Aegis destroyers.

Even the Taiwanese government has made it clear that a decision to refuse it the destroyers wouldn’t be “the end of the world”. Whatever Bush decides, he is caught up in a dangerous and unstable Great Power game in Asia.

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