No Longer the “Lone” Superpower – Coming to Terms with China

Chalmers Johnson

I recall forty years ago, when I was a new professor working in the
field of Chinese and Japanese international relations, that Edwin O.
Reischauer once commented, “The great payoff from our victory of
1945 was a permanently disarmed Japan.” Born in Japan and a Japanese
historian at Harvard, Reischauer served as American ambassador to
Tokyo in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Strange to say,
since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and particularly under the
administration of George W. Bush, the United States has been doing
everything in its power to encourage and even accelerate Japanese
Such a development promotes hostility between China and Japan, the
two superpowers of East Asia, sabotages possible peaceful solutions
in those two problem areas, Taiwan and North Korea, left over from
the Chinese and Korean civil wars, and lays the foundation for a
possible future Sino-American conflict that the United States would
almost surely lose. It is unclear whether the ideologues and war
lovers of Washington understand what they are unleashing — a
possible confrontation between the world’s fastest growing
industrial economy, China, and the world’s second most productive,
albeit declining, economy, Japan; a confrontation which the United
States would have both caused and in which it might well be
Let me make clear that in East Asia we are not talking about a
little regime-change war of the sort that Bush and Cheney advocate.
After all, the most salient characteristic of international
relations during the last century was the inability of the rich,
established powers — Great Britain and the United States — to
adjust peacefully to the emergence of new centers of power in
Germany, Japan, and Russia. The result was two exceedingly bloody
world wars, a forty-five-year-long Cold War between Russia and the
“West,” and innumerable wars of national liberation (such as the
quarter-century long one in Vietnam) against the arrogance and
racism of European, American, and Japanese imperialism and
The major question for the twenty-first century is whether this
fateful inability to adjust to changes in the global power-structure
can be overcome. Thus far the signs are negative. Can the United
States and Japan, today’s versions of rich, established powers,
adjust to the reemergence of China — the world’s oldest,
continuously extant civilization — this time as a modern
superpower? Or is China’s ascendancy to be marked by yet another
world war, when the pretensions of European civilization in its U.S.
and Japanese projections are finally put to rest? That is what is at
Alice-in-Wonderland Policies and the Mother of All Financial Crises
China, Japan, and the United States are the three most productive
economies on Earth, but China is the fastest growing (at an average
rate of 9.5% per annum for over two decades), whereas both the U.S.
and Japan are saddled with huge and mounting debts and, in the case
of Japan, stagnant growth rates. China is today the world’s sixth
largest economy (the U.S. and Japan being first and second) and our
third largest trading partner after Canada and Mexico. According to
CIA statisticians in their Factbook 2003, China is actually already
the second-largest economy on Earth measured on a purchasing power
parity basis — that is, in terms of what China actually produces
rather than prices and exchange rates. The CIA calculates the United
States’ gross domestic product (GDP) — the total value of all goods
and services produced within a country — for 2003 as $10.4 trillion
and China’s $5.7 trillion. This gives China’s 1.3 billion people a
per capita GDP of $4,385.
Between 1992 and 2003, Japan was China’s largest trading partner,
but in 2004 Japan fell to third place, behind the European Union
(EU) and the United States. China’s trade volume for 2004 was $1.2
trillion, third in the world after the U.S. and Germany, and well
ahead of Japan’s $1.07 trillion. China’s trade with the U.S. grew
some 34% in 2004 and has turned Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland
into the three busiest seaports in America.
The truly significant trade development of 2004 was the EU’s
emergence as China’s biggest economic partner, suggesting the
possibility of a Sino-European cooperative bloc confronting a less
vital Japanese-American one. As Britain’s Financial Times observed,
“Three years after its entry into the World Trade Organization [in
2001], China’s influence in global commerce is no longer merely
significant. It is crucial.” For example, most Dell Computers sold
in the U.S. are made in China, as are the DVD players of Japan’s
Funai Electric Company. Funai annually exports some 10 million DVD
players and television sets from China to the United States, where
they are sold primarily in Wal-Mart stores. China’s trade with
Europe in 2004 was worth $177.2 billion, with the United States
$169.6 billion, and with Japan $167.8 billion.
China’s growing economic weight in the world is widely recognized
and applauded, but it is China’s growth rates and their effect on
the future global balance of power that the U.S. and Japan, rightly
or wrongly, fear. The CIA’s National Intelligence Council forecasts
that China’s GDP will equal Britain’s in 2005, Germany’s in 2009,
Japan’s in 2017, and the U.S.’s in 2042. But Shahid Javed Burki,
former vice president of the World Bank’s China Department and a
former finance minister of Pakistan, predicts that by 2025 China
will probably have a GDP of $25 trillion in terms of purchasing
power parity and will have become the world’s largest economy
followed by the United States at $20 trillion and India at about $13
trillion — and Burki’s analysis is based on a conservative
prediction of a 6% Chinese growth rate sustained over the next two
decades. He foresees Japan’s inevitable decline because its
population will begin to shrink drastically after about 2010.
Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs reports that the number of men
in Japan already declined by 0.01% in 2004; and some demographers,
it notes, anticipate that by the end of the century the country’s
population could shrink by nearly two-thirds, from 127.7 million
today to 45 million, the same population it had in 1910.
By contrast, China’s population is showing signs that it will
stabilize at approximately 1.4 billion people, and is heavily
weighted toward males. (The government-imposed one-child-per-family
policy and the availability of sonograms have resulted in a ratio of
129 boys born for every 100 girls; 147 boys for every 100 girls for
couples seeking second or third children.) Chinese domestic economic
growth is expected to continue for decades, reflecting the pent-up
demand of its huge population, relatively low levels of personal
debt, and a dynamic underground economy not recorded in official
statistics. Most important, China’s external debt is relatively
small and easily covered by its reserves; whereas both the U.S. and
Japan are approximately $7 trillion in the red, which is worse for
Japan with less than half the U.S. population and economic clout.
Ironically, part of Japan’s debt is a product of its efforts to help
prop up America’s global imperial stance. For example, in the period
since the end of the Cold War, Japan has subsidized America’s
military bases in Japan to the staggering tune of approximately $70
billion. Refusing to pay for its profligate consumption patterns and
military expenditures through taxes on its own citizens, the United
States is financing these outlays by going into debt to Japan,
China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and India. This situation has
become increasingly unstable as the U.S. requires capital imports of
at least $2 billion per day to pay for its governmental
expenditures. Any decision by East Asian central banks to move
significant parts of their foreign exchange reserves out of the
dollar and into the euro or other currencies in order to protect
themselves from dollar depreciation would produce the mother of all
financial crises.
Japan still possesses the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves,
which at the end of January 2005 stood at around $841 billion. But
China sits on a $609.9 billion pile of dollars (as of the end of
2004), earned from its trade surpluses with us. Meanwhile, the
American government and Japanese followers of George W. Bush insult
China in every way they can, particularly over the status of China’s
breakaway province, the island of Taiwan. The distinguished economic
analyst William Greider recently noted, “Any profligate debtor who
insults his banker is unwise, to put it mildly. . . . American
leadership has . . . become increasingly delusional — I mean that
literally — and blind to the adverse balance of power accumulating
against it.”
The Bush administration is unwisely threatening China by urging
Japan to rearm and by promising Taiwan that, should China use force
to prevent a Taiwanese declaration of independence, the U.S. will go
to war on its behalf. It is hard to imagine more shortsighted,
irresponsible policies, but in light of the Bush administration’s
Alice-in-Wonderland war in Iraq, the acute anti-Americanism it has
generated globally, and the politicization of America’s intelligence
services, it seems possible that the U.S. and Japan might actually
precipitate a war with China over Taiwan.
Japan Rearms
Since the end of World War II, and particularly since gaining its
independence in 1952, Japan has subscribed to a pacifist foreign
policy. It has resolutely refused to maintain offensive military
forces or to become part of America’s global military system. Japan
did not, for example, participate in the 1991 war against Iraq, nor
has it joined collective security agreements in which it would have
to match the military contributions of its partners. Since the
signing in 1952 of the Japan-United States Security Treaty, the
country has officially been defended from so-called external threats
by U.S. forces located on some 91 bases on the Japanese mainland and
the island of Okinawa. The U.S. Seventh Fleet even has its home port
at the old Japanese naval base of Yokosuka. Japan not only
subsidizes these bases but subscribes to the public fiction that the
American forces are present only for its defense. In fact, Japan has
no control over how and where the U.S. employs its land, sea, and
air forces based on Japanese territory, and the Japanese and
American governments have until quite recently finessed the issue
simply by never discussing it.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States has
repeatedly pressured Japan to revise article nine of its
Constitution (renouncing the use of force except as a matter of
self-defense) and become what American officials call a “normal
nation.” For example, on August 13, 2004, Secretary of State Colin
Powell stated baldly in Tokyo that if Japan ever hoped to become a
permanent member of the U.N. Security Council it would first have to
get rid of its pacifist Constitution. Japan’s claim to a Security
Council seat is based on the fact that, although its share of global
GDP is only 14%, it pays 20% of the total U.N. budget. Powell’s
remark was blatant interference in Japan’s internal affairs, but it
merely echoed many messages delivered by former Deputy Secretary of
State Richard Armitage, the leader of a reactionary clique in
Washington that has worked for years to remilitarize Japan and so
enlarge a major new market for American arms. Its members include
Torkel Patterson, Robin Sakoda, David Asher, and James Kelly at
State; Michael Green on the National Security Council’s staff; and
numerous uniformed military officers at the Pentagon and at the
headquarters of the Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
America’s intention is to turn Japan into what Washington
neo-conservatives like to call the “Britain of the Far East” — and
then use it as a proxy in checkmating North Korea and balancing
China. On October 11, 2000, Michael Green, then a member of Armitage
Associates, wrote, “We see the special relationship between the
United States and Great Britain as a model for the [U.S.-Japan]
alliance.” Japan has so far not resisted this American pressure
since it complements a renewed nationalism among Japanese voters and
a fear that a burgeoning capitalist China threatens Japan’s
established position as the leading economic power in East Asia.
Japanese officials also claim that the country feels threatened by
North Korea’s developing nuclear and missile programs, although they
know that the North Korean stand-off could be resolved virtually
overnight — if the Bush administration would cease trying to
overthrow the Pyongyang regime and instead deliver on American trade
promises (in return for North Korea’s agreement to give up its
nuclear weapons program). Instead, on February 25, 2005, the State
Department announced that “the U.S. will refuse North Korean leader
Kim Jong-il’s demand for a guarantee of ‘no hostile intent’ to get
Pyongyang back into negotiations over its nuclear weapons programs.”
And on March 7, Bush nominated John Bolton to be American ambassador
to the United Nations even though North Korea has refused to
negotiate with him because of his insulting remarks about the
Japan’s remilitarization worries a segment of the Japanese public
and is opposed throughout East Asia by all the nations Japan
victimized during World War II, including China, both Koreas, and
even Australia. As a result, the Japanese government has launched a
stealth program of incremental rearmament. Since 1992, it has
enacted 21 major pieces of security-related legislation, 9 in 2004
alone. These began with the International Peace Cooperation Law of
1992, which for the first time authorized Japan to send troops to
participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Remilitarization has since taken many forms, including expanding
military budgets, legitimizing and legalizing the sending of
military forces abroad, a commitment to join the American missile
defense (“Star Wars”) program — something the Canadians refused to
do in February 2005 — and a growing acceptance of military
solutions to international problems. This gradual process was
greatly accelerated in 2001 by the simultaneous coming to power of
President George Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi
made his first visit to the United States in July of that year and,
in May of 2003, received the ultimate imprimatur, an invitation to
Bush’s “ranch” in Crawford, Texas. Shortly thereafter, Koizumi
agreed to send a contingent of 550 troops to Iraq for a year,
extended their stay for another year in 2004, and on October 14,
2004, personally endorsed George Bush’s reelection.
A New Nuclear Giant in the Making?
Koizumi has appointed to his various cabinets hard-line
anti-Chinese, pro-Taiwanese politicians. Phil Deans, director of the
Contemporary China Institute in the School of Oriental and African
Studies, University of London, observes, “There has been a
remarkable growth of pro-Taiwan sentiment in Japan. There is not one
pro-China figure in the Koizumi Cabinet.” Members of the latest
Koizumi Cabinet include the Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono, and
the foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura, both ardent militarists;
while Foreign Minister Machimura is a member of the right-wing
faction of former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, which supports an
independent Taiwan and maintains extensive covert ties with
Taiwanese leaders and businessmen.
Taiwan, it should be remembered, was a Japanese colony from 1895 to
1945. Unlike the harsh Japanese military rule over Korea from 1910
to 1945, it experienced relatively benign governance by a civilian
Japanese administration. The island, while bombed by the Allies, was
not a battleground during World War II although it was harshly
occupied by the Chinese Nationalists (Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang)
immediately after the war. Today, as a result, many Taiwanese speak
Japanese and have a favorable view of Japan. Taiwan is virtually the
only place in East Asia where Japanese are fully welcomed and liked.
Bush and Koizumi have developed elaborate plans for military
cooperation between their two countries. Crucial to such plans is
the scrapping of the Japanese Constitution of 1947. If nothing gets
in the way, Koizumi’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) intends
to introduce a new constitution on the occasion of the party’s
fiftieth anniversary in November 2005. This has been deemed
appropriate because the LDP’s founding charter of 1955 set as a
basic party goal the “establishment of Japan’s own Constitution” —
a reference to the fact that General Douglas MacArthur’s post-World
War II occupation headquarters actually drafted the current
Constitution. The original LDP policy statement also called for “the
eventual removal of U.S. troops from Japanese territory,” which may
be one of the hidden purposes behind Japan’s urge to rearm.
A major goal of the Americans is to gain Japan’s active
participation in their massively expensive missile defense program.
The Bush administration is seeking, among other things, an end to
Japan’s ban on the export of military technology, since it wants
Japanese engineers to help solve some of the technical problems of
its so far failing Star Wars system. The United States has also been
actively negotiating with Japan to relocate the Army’s 1st Corps
from Fort Lewis, Washington, to Camp Zama, southwest of Tokyo in the
densely populated prefecture of Kanagawa, whose capital is Yokohama.
These U.S. forces in Japan would then be placed under the command of
a four-star general, who would be on a par with regional commanders
like Centcom commander John Abizaid, who lords it over Iraq and
South Asia. The new command would be in charge of all Army “force
projection” operations beyond East Asia and would inevitably
implicate Japan in the daily military operations of the American
empire. Garrisoning even a small headquarters, much less the whole
1st Corps made up of an estimated 40,000 soldiers, in a
sophisticated and centrally located prefecture like Kanagawa is also
guaranteed to generate intense public opposition as well as rapes,
fights, car accidents and other incidents similar to the ones that
occur daily in Okinawa.
Meanwhile, Japan intends to upgrade its Defense Agency (Boeicho)
into a ministry and possibly develop its own nuclear weapons
capability. Goading the Japanese government to assert itself
militarily may well cause the country to go nuclear in order to
“deter” China and North Korea, while freeing Japan from its
dependency on the American “nuclear umbrella.” The military analyst
Richard Tanter notes that Japan already has “the undoubted capacity
to satisfy all three core requirements for a usable nuclear weapon:
a military nuclear device, a sufficiently accurate targeting system,
and at least one adequate delivery system.” Japan’s combination of
fully functioning fission and breeder reactors plus nuclear fuel
reprocessing facilities gives it the ability to build advanced
thermonuclear weapons; its H-II and H-IIA rockets, in-flight
refueling capacity for fighter bombers, and military-grade
surveillance satellites assure that it could deliver its weapons
accurately to regional targets. What it currently lacks are the
platforms (such as submarines) for a secure retaliatory force in
order to dissuade a nuclear adversary from launching a pre-emptive
The Taiwanese Knot
Japan may talk a lot about the dangers of North Korea, but the real
objective of its rearmament is China. This has become clear from the
ways in which Japan has recently injected itself into the single
most delicate and dangerous issue of East Asian international
relations — the problem of Taiwan. Japan invaded China in 1931 and
was its wartime tormentor thereafter as well as Taiwan’s colonial
overlord. Even then, however, Taiwan was viewed as a part of China,
as the United States has long recognized. What remains to be
resolved are the terms and timing of Taiwan’s reintegration with the
Chinese mainland. This process was deeply complicated by the fact
that in 1987 Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who had retreated to
Taiwan in 1949 at the end of the Chinese civil war (and were
protected there by the American Seventh Fleet ever after), finally
ended martial law on the island. Taiwan has since matured into a
vibrant democracy and the Taiwanese are now starting to display
their own mixed opinions about their future.
In 2000, the Taiwanese people ended a long monopoly of power by the
Nationalists and gave the Democratic Progressive Party, headed by
President Chen Shui-bian, an electoral victory. A native Taiwanese
(as distinct from the large contingent of mainlanders who came to
Taiwan in the baggage train of Chiang’s defeated armies), Chen
stands for an independent Taiwan, as does his party. By contrast,
the Nationalists, together with a powerful mainlander splinter
party, the People First Party headed by James Soong (Song Chuyu),
hope to see an eventual peaceful unification of Taiwan with China.
On March 7, 2005, the Bush administration complicated these delicate
relations by nominating John Bolton to be the American ambassador to
the United Nations. He is an avowed advocate of Taiwanese
independence and was once a paid consultant to the Taiwanese
In May 2004, in a very close and contested election, Chen Shui-bian
was reelected, and on May 20, the notorious right-wing Japanese
politician Shintaro Ishihara attended his inauguration in Taipei.
(Ishihara believes that Japan’s 1937 Rape of Nanking was “a lie made
up by the Chinese.”) Though Chen won with only 50.1% of the vote,
this was still a sizeable increase over his 33.9% in 2000, when the
opposition was divided. The Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs
immediately appointed Koh Se-kai as its informal ambassador to
Japan. Koh has lived in Japan for some 33 years and maintains
extensive ties to senior political and academic figures there. China
responded that it would “completely annihilate” any moves toward
Taiwanese independence — even if it meant scuttling the 2008
Beijing Olympics and good relations with the United States.
Contrary to the machinations of American neo-cons and Japanese
rightists, however, the Taiwanese people have revealed themselves to
be open to negotiating with China over the timing and terms of reintegration. On August 23, 2004, the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s
parliament) enacted changes in its voting rules to prevent Chen from
amending the Constitution to favor independence, as he had promised
to do in his reelection campaign. This action drastically lowered
the risk of conflict with China. Probably influencing the
Legislative Yuan was the warning issued on August 22 by Singapore’s
new prime minister, Lee Hsien-loong: “If Taiwan goes for
independence, Singapore will not recognize it. In fact, no Asian
country will recognize it. China will fight. Win or lose, Taiwan
will be devastated.”
The next important development was parliamentary elections on
December 11, 2004. President Chen called his campaign a referendum
on his pro-independence policy and asked for a mandate to carry out
his reforms. Instead he lost decisively. The opposition Nationalists
and the People First Party won 114 seats in the 225-seat parliament,
while Chen’s DPP and its allies took only 101. (Ten seats went to
independents.) The Nationalist leader, Lien Chan, whose party won 79
seats to the DPP’s 89, said, “Today we saw extremely clearly that
all the people want stability in this country.”
Chen’s failure to capture control of parliament also meant that a
proposed purchase of $19.6 billion worth of arms from the United
States was doomed. The deal included guided-missile destroyers, P-3
anti-submarine aircraft, diesel submarines, and advanced Patriot
PAC-3 anti-missile systems. The Nationalists and James Soong’s
supporters regard the price as too high and mostly a financial sop
to the Bush administration, which has been pushing the sale since
2001. They also believe the weapons would not improve Taiwan’s
On December 27, 2004, mainland China issued its fifth Defense White
Paper on the goals of the country’s national defense efforts. As one
long-time observer, Robert Bedeski, notes, “At first glance, the
Defense White Paper is a hard-line statement on territorial
sovereignty and emphasizes China’s determination not to tolerate any
moves at secession, independence, or separation. However, the next
paragraph . . . indicates a willingness to reduce tensions in the
Taiwan Strait: so long as the Taiwan authorities accept the one
China principle and stop their separatist activities aimed at
‘Taiwan independence,’ cross-strait talks can be held at any time on
officially ending the state of hostility between the two sides.”
It appears that this is also the way the Taiwanese read the message.
On February 24, 2005, President Chen Shui-bian met for the first
time since October 2000 with Chairman James Soong of the People
First Party. The two leaders, holding diametrically opposed views on
relations with the mainland, nonetheless signed a joint statement
outlining ten points of consensus. They pledged to try to open full
transport and commercial links across the Taiwan Strait, increase
trade, and ease the ban on investments in China by many Taiwanese
business sectors. The mainland reacted favorably at once.
Astonishingly, this led Chen Shui-bian to say that he “would not
rule out Taiwan’s eventual reunion with China, provided Taiwan’s 23
million people accepted it.”
If the United States and Japan left China and Taiwan to their own
devices, it seems possible that they would work out a modus vivendi.
Taiwan has already invested some $150 billion in the mainland, and
the two economies are becoming more closely integrated every day.
There also seems to be a growing recognition in Taiwan that it would
be very difficult to live as an independent Chinese-speaking nation
alongside a country with 1.3 billion people, 3.7 million square
miles of territory, a rapidly growing $1.4 trillion economy, and
aspirations to regional leadership in East Asia. Rather than
declaring its independence, Taiwan may try to seek a status somewhat
like that of French Canada — a kind of looser version of a Chinese
Quebec under nominal central government control but maintaining
separate institutions, laws, and customs.
The mainland would be so relieved by this solution it would probably
accept it, particularly if it could be achieved before the 2008
Beijing Olympics. China fears that Taiwanese radicals want to
declare independence a month or two before those Olympics, betting
that China would not attack then because of its huge investment in
the forthcoming games. Most observers believe, however, that China
would have no choice but to go to war because failure to do so would
invite a domestic revolution against the Chinese Communist Party for
violating the national integrity of China.
Sino-American and Sino-Japanese Relations Spiral Downward
It has long been an article of neo-con faith that the U.S. must do
everything in its power to prevent the development of rival power
centers, whether friendly or hostile. After the collapse of the
Soviet Union, this meant they turned their attention to China as one
of our probable next enemies. In 2001, having come to power, the
neo-conservatives shifted much of our nuclear targeting from Russia
to China. They also began regular high-level military talks with
Taiwan over defense of the island, ordered a shift of Army personnel
and supplies to the Asia-Pacific region, and worked strenuously to
promote the remilitarization of Japan.
On April 1, 2001, a U.S. navy EP-3E Aries II electronic spy plane
collided with a Chinese jet fighter off the south China coast. The
American aircraft was on a mission to provoke Chinese radar defenses
and then record the transmissions and procedures the Chinese used in
sending up interceptors. The Chinese jet went down and the pilot
lost his life, while the American plane landed safely on Hainan
Island and its crew of twenty-four spies was well treated by the
Chinese authorities.
It soon became clear that China was not interested in a
confrontation, since many of its most important investors have their
headquarters in the United States. But it could not instantly return
the crew of the spy plane without risking powerful domestic
criticism for obsequiousness in the face of provocation. It
therefore delayed eleven days until it received a pro forma American
apology for causing the death of a Chinese pilot on the edge of the
country’s territorial air space and for making an unauthorized
landing at a Chinese military airfield. Meanwhile, our media had
labeled the crew as “hostages,” encouraged their relatives to tie
yellow ribbons around neighborhood trees, hailed the President for
doing “a first-rate job” to free them, and endlessly criticized
China for its “state-controlled media.” They carefully avoided
mentioning that the United States enforces around our country a
200-mile aircraft-intercept zone that stretches far beyond
territorial waters.
On April 25, 2001, during an interview on national television,
President Bush was asked whether he would ever use “the full force
of the American military” against China for the sake of Taiwan. He
responded, “Whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend herself.” This
was American policy until 9/11, when China enthusiastically joined
the “war on terrorism” and the President and his neo-cons became
preoccupied with their “axis of evil” and making war on Iraq. The
United States and China were also enjoying extremely close economic
relations, which the big- business wing of the Republican Party did
not want to jeopardize.
The Middle East thus trumped the neo-cons’ Asia policy. While the
Americans were distracted, China went about its economic business
for almost four years, emerging as a powerhouse of Asia and a
potential organizing node for Asian economies. Rapidly
industrializing China also developed a voracious appetite for
petroleum and other raw materials, which brought it into direct
competition with the world’s largest importers, the U.S. and Japan.
By the summer of 2004, Bush strategists, distracted as they were by
Iraq, again became alarmed over China’s growing power and its
potential to challenge American hegemony in East Asia. The
Republican Party platform unveiled at its convention in New York in
August proclaimed that “America will help Taiwan defend itself.”
During that summer, the Navy also carried out exercises it dubbed
“Operation Summer Pulse ‘04,” which involved the simultaneous
deployment at sea of seven of our twelve carrier strike groups. An
American carrier strike group includes an aircraft carrier (usually
with 9 or 10 squadrons of planes, a total of about 85 aircraft in
all), a guided missile cruiser, two guided missile destroyers, an
attack submarine, and a combination ammunition-oiler-supply ship.
Deploying seven such armadas at the same time was unprecedented —
and very expensive. Even though only three of the carrier strike
groups were sent to the Pacific and no more than one was patrolling
off Taiwan at a time, the Chinese became deeply alarmed that this
marked the beginning of an attempted rerun of 19th century gunboat
diplomacy aimed at them.
This American show of force and Chen Shui-bian’s polemics preceding
the December elections also seemed to overstimulate the Taiwanese.
On October 26 in Beijing, Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to
calm things down by declaring to the press, “Taiwan is not
independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that
remains our policy, our firm policy… We want to see both sides not
take unilateral action that would prejudice an eventual outcome, a
reunification that all parties are seeking.”
Powell’s statement seemed unequivocal enough, but significant doubts
persisted about whether he had much influence within the Bush
administration or whether he could speak for Vice President Cheney
and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Early in 2005, Porter
Goss, the new director of the CIA, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and
Admiral Lowell Jacoby, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, all
told Congress that China’s military modernization was going ahead
much faster than previously believed. They warned that the 2005
Quadrennial Defense Review, the every four-year formal assessment of
U.S. military policy, would take a much harsher view of the threat
posed by China than the 2001 overview.
In this context, the Bush administration, perhaps influenced by the
election of November 2 and the transition from Colin Powell’s to
Condi Rice’s State Department, played its most dangerous card. On
February 19, 2005 in Washington, it signed a new military agreement
with Japan. For the first time, Japan joined the administration in
identifying security in the Taiwan Strait as a “common strategic
objective.” Nothing could have been more alarming to China’s leaders
than the revelation that Japan had decisively ended six decades of
official pacifism by claiming a right to intervene in the Taiwan
It is possible that, in the years to come, Taiwan itself may recede
in importance to be replaced by even more direct Sino-Japanese
confrontations. This would be an ominous development indeed, one
that the United States would be responsible for having abetted but
would certainly be unable to control. The kindling for a
Sino-Japanese explosion has long been in place. After all, during
World War II the Japanese killed approximately 23 million Chinese
throughout East Asia — higher casualties than the staggering ones
suffered by Russia at the hands of the Nazis — and yet Japan
refuses to atone for or even acknowledge its historical war crimes.
Quite the opposite, it continues to rewrite history, portraying
itself as the liberator of Asia and a victim of European and
American imperialism.
In — for the Chinese — a painful act of symbolism, after becoming
Japanese prime minister in 2001, Junichiro Koizumi made his first
official visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a practice that he has
repeated every year since. Koizumi likes to say to foreigners that
he is merely honoring Japan’s war dead. Yasukuni, however, is
anything but a military cemetery or a war memorial. It was
established in 1869 by Emperor Meiji as a Shinto shrine (though with
its torii archways made of steel rather than the traditional
red-painted wood) to commemorate the lives lost in campaigns to
return direct imperial rule to Japan. During World War II, Japanese
militarists took over the shrine and used it to promote patriotic
and nationalistic sentiments. Today, Yasukuni is said to be
dedicated to the spirits of approximately 2.4 million Japanese who
have died in the country’s wars, both civil and foreign, since 1853.
In 1978, for reasons that have never been made clear, General Hideki
Tojo and six other wartime leaders who had been hanged by the Allied
Powers as war criminals were collectively enshrined at Yasukuni. The
current chief priest of the shrine denies that they were war
criminals, saying, “The winner passed judgment on the loser.” In a
museum on the shrine’s grounds, there is a fully restored Mitsubishi
Zero Type 52 fighter aircraft that a placard says made its combat
debut in 1940 over Chongqing, then the wartime capital of the
Republic of China. It was undoubtedly not an accident that, in
Chongqing during the 2004 Asian Cup soccer finals, Chinese
spectators booed the playing of the Japanese national anthem.
Yasukuni’s leaders have always claimed close ties to the imperial
household, but the late Emperor Hirohito last visited the shrine in
1975 and Emperor Akihito has never been there.
The Chinese regard Yasukuni visits by the Japanese prime minister as
insulting, somewhat comparable perhaps to Britain’s Prince Harry
dressing up as a Nazi for a costume party. Nonetheless, Beijing has
tried in recent years to appease Tokyo. Chinese President Hu Jintao
rolled out the red carpet for Yohei Kono, speaker of the Japanese
Diet’s House of Representatives, when he visited China in September
2004; he appointed Wang Yi, a senior moderate in the Chinese foreign
service, as ambassador to Japan; and he proposed joint Sino-Japanese
exploration of possible oil resources in the offshore seas that both
sides claim. All such gestures were ignored by Koizumi who insists
that he intends to go on visiting Yasukuni.
Matters came to a head in November 2004 at two important summit
meetings: an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering in
Santiago, Chile, followed immediately by an Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting with the leaders of China, Japan, and
South Korea that took place in Vientiane, Laos. In Santiago, Hu
Jintao directly asked Koizumi to cease his Yasukuni visits for the
sake of Sino-Japanese friendship. Seemingly as a reply, Koizumi went
out of his way to insult Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Vientiane. He
said to Premier Wen, “It’s about time for [China’s] graduation [as a
recipient of Japanese foreign aid payments],” implying that Japan
intended unilaterally to end its 25-year-old financial aid program.
The word “graduation” also conveyed the insulting implication that
Japan saw itself as a teacher guiding China, the student.
Koizumi next gave a little speech about the history of Japanese
efforts to normalize relations with China, to which Premier Wen
replied, “Do you know how many Chinese people died in the
Sino-Japanese war?” Wen went on to suggest that China had always
regarded Japan’s foreign aid, which he said China did not need, as
payments in lieu of compensation for damage done by Japan in China
during the war. He pointed out that China had never asked for
reparations from Japan and that Japan’s payments amounted to about
$30 billion over 25 years, a fraction of the $80 billion Germany has
paid to the victims of Nazi atrocities even though Japan is the more
populous and richer country.
On November 10, 2004, the Japanese Navy discovered a Chinese nuclear
submarine in Japanese territorial waters near Okinawa. Although the
Chinese apologized and called the sub’s intrusion a “mistake,”
Defense Agency Director Ono gave it wide publicity, further
inflaming Japanese public opinion against China. From that point on,
relations between Beijing and Tokyo have gone steadily downhill,
culminating in the Japanese-American announcement that Taiwan was of
special military concern to both of them, which China denounced as
an “abomination.”
Over time this downward spiral in relations will probably prove
damaging to the interests of both the United States and Japan, but
particularly to those of Japan. China is unlikely to retaliate
directly but is even less likely to forget what has happened — and
it has a great deal of leverage over Japan. After all, Japanese
prosperity increasingly depends on its ties to China. The reverse is
not true. Contrary to what one might expect, Japanese exports to
China jumped 70% between 2001 and 2004, providing the main impetus
for a sputtering Japanese economic recovery. Some 18,000 Japanese
companies have operations in China. In 2003, Japan passed the United
States as the top destination for Chinese students going abroad for
a university education. Nearly 70,000 Chinese students now study at
Japanese universities compared to 65,000 at American academic
institutions. These close and lucrative relations are at risk if the
U.S. and Japan pursue their militarization of the region.
A Multipolar World
Tony Karon of Time magazine has observed, “All over the world, new
bonds of trade and strategic cooperation are being forged around the
U.S. China has not only begun to displace the U.S. as the dominant
player in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation organization (APEC),
it is fast emerging as the major trading partner to some of Latin
America’s largest economies. . . . French foreign policy think tanks
have long promoted the goal of ‘multipolarity’ in a post-Cold War
world, i.e., the preference for many different, competing power
centers rather than the ‘unipolarity’ of the U.S. as a single
hyper-power. Multipolarity is no longer simply a strategic goal. It
is an emerging reality.”
Evidence is easily found of multipolarity and China’s prominent role
in promoting it. Just note China’s expanding relations with Iran,
the European Union, Latin America, and the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations. Iran is the second largest OPEC oil producer after
Saudi Arabia and has long had friendly relations with Japan, which
is its leading trading partner. (Ninety-eight percent of Japan’s
imports from Iran are oil.) On February 18, 2004, a consortium of
Japanese companies and the Iranian government signed a memorandum of
agreement to develop jointly Iran’s Azadegan oil field, one of the
world’s largest, in a project worth $2.8 billion. The U.S. has
opposed Japan’s support for Iran, causing Congressman Brad Sherman
(D-CA) to charge that Bush had been bribed into accepting the
Japanese-Iranian deal by Koizumi’s dispatch of 550 Japanese troops
to Iraq, adding a veneer of international support for the American
war there.
But the long-standing Iranian-Japanese alignment began to change in
late 2004. On October 28, China’s oil major, the Sinopec Group,
signed an agreement with Iran worth between $70 and $100 billion to
develop the giant Yadavaran natural gas field. China agreed to buy
250 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Iran over 25
years. It is the largest deal Iran has signed with a foreign country
since 1996 and will include several other benefits, including
China’s assistance in building numerous ships to deliver the LNG to
Chinese ports. Iran also committed itself to exporting 150,000
barrels of crude oil per day to China for 25 years at market prices.
Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, on a visit to Beijing noted
that Iran is China’s biggest foreign oil supplier and said that his
country wants to be China’s long-term business partner. He told
China Business Weekly that Tehran would like to replace Japan with
China as the biggest customer for its oil and gas. The reason is
obvious: American pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear power
development program and the Bush administration’s declared intention
to take Iran to the U.N. Security Council for the imposition of
sanctions (which a Chinese vote could veto). On November 6, 2004,
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing paid a rare visit to Tehran. In
meetings with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, Li said that
Beijing would indeed consider vetoing any American effort to
sanction Iran at the Security Council. The U.S. has also charged
China with selling nuclear and missile technology to Iran.
China and Iran already did a record $4 billion worth of two-way
business in 2003. Projects included China’s building of the first
stage of Tehran’s Metro and a contract to build a second link worth
$836 million. China will be the top contender to build four other
planned lines, including a 19 mile track to the airport. In February
2003, Chery Automobile Company, the eighth largest automaker in
China, opened its first overseas production plant in Iran. Today, it
manufactures 30,000 Chery cars annually in northeastern Iran.
Beijing is also negotiating to construct a 240 mile pipeline from
Iran to the northern Caspian Sea to connect with the long-distance
Kazakhstan to Xinjiang pipeline that it began building in October
2004. The Kazakh pipeline has a capacity to deliver 10 million tons
of oil to China per year. Despite American bluster and belligerence,
Iran is anything but isolated in today’s world.
The EU is China’s largest trading partner and China is the EU’s
second largest trading partner (after the United States). Back in
1989, to protest the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in
Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the EU imposed a ban on military sales
to China. The only other countries so treated are true international
pariahs like Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Even North Korea is not
subject to a formal European arms embargo. Given that the Chinese
leadership has changed several times since 1989 and as a gesture of
goodwill, the EU has announced its intention to lift the embargo.
Jacques Chirac, the French president, is one of the strongest
proponents of the idea of replacing American hegemony with a
“multipolar world.” On a visit to Beijing in October 2004, he said
that China and France share “a common vision of the world” and that
lifting the embargo will “mark a significant milestone: a moment
when Europe had to make a choice between the strategic interests of
America and China — and chose China.”
In his trip to Western Europe in February 2005, Bush repeatedly
said, “There is deep concern in our country that a transfer of
weapons would be a transfer of technology to China, which would change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan.” In early
February, the House of Representatives voted 411 to 3 in favor of a
resolution condemning the potential EU move. The Europeans and
Chinese contend that the Bush administration has vastly overstated
its case, that no weapons capable of changing the balance of power
are involved, and that the EU is not aiming to win massive new
defense contracts from China but to strengthen mutual economic
relations in general. Immediately following Bush’s tour of Europe,
the EU Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, arrived in Beijing for
his first official visit. The purpose of his trip, he said, was to
stress the need to create a new strategic partnership between China
and Europe.
Washington has buttressed its hard-line stance with the release of
many new intelligence estimates depicting China as a formidable
military threat. Whether this intelligence is politicized or not, it
argues that China’s military modernization is aimed precisely at
countering the Navy’s carrier strike groups, which would assumedly
be used in the Taiwan Strait in case of war. China is certainly
building a large fleet of nuclear submarines and is an active
participant in the EU’s Galileo Project to produce a satellite
navigation system not controlled by the American military. The
Defense Department worries that Beijing might adapt the Galileo
technology to anti-satellite purposes. American military analysts
are also impressed by China’s launch, on October 15, 2003, of a
spacecraft containing a single astronaut who was successfully
returned to Earth the following day. Only the former USSR and the
United States had previously sent humans into outer space.
China already has 500 to 550 short-range ballistic missiles deployed
opposite Taiwan and has 24 CSS-4 ICBMs with a range of 13,000 km to
deter an American missile attack on the Chinese mainland. According
to Richard Fisher, a researcher at the U.S.-based Center for
Security Policy, “The forces that China is putting in place right
now will probably be more than sufficient to deal with a single
American aircraft carrier battle group.” Arthur Lauder, a professor
of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania,
concurs. He says that the Chinese military “is the only one being
developed anywhere in the world today that is specifically
configured to fight the United States of America.”
The U.S. obviously cannot wish away this capability, but it has no
evidence that China is doing anything more than countering the
threats coming from the Bush administration. It seeks to avoid war
with Taiwan and the U.S. by deterring them from separating Taiwan
from China. For this reason, in March 2005, China’s pro-forma
legislature, the National People’s Congress, passed a law making
secession from China illegal and authorizing the use of force in
case a territory tried to leave the country.
The Japanese government, of course, backs the American position that
China constitutes a military threat to the entire region.
Interestingly enough, however, the Australian government of John
Howard, a loyal American ally when it comes to Iraq, has decided to
defy Bush on the issue of lifting the European arms embargo.
Australia places a high premium on good relations with China and is
hoping to negotiate a free trade agreement between the two
countries. Canberra has therefore decided to support the EU in
lifting the 15-year-old embargo. Chirac and German Chancellor
Gerhard Schröder both say, “It will happen.”
The United States has long proclaimed that Latin America is part of
its “sphere of influence,” and because of that most foreign
countries have tread carefully in doing business there. However, in
the search for fuel and minerals for its booming economy, China is
openly courting many Latin American countries regardless of what
Washington thinks. On November 15, 2004, President Hu Jintao ended a
five day visit to Brazil during which he signed more than a dozen
accords aimed at expanding Brazil’s sales to China and Chinese
investment in Brazil. Under one agreement Brazil will export to
China as much as $800 million annually in beef and poultry. In turn,
China agreed with Brazil’s state-controlled oil company to finance a
$1.3 billion gas pipeline between Rio de Janeiro and Bahia once
technical studies are completed. China and Brazil also entered into
a “strategic partnership” with the objective of raising the value of
bilateral trade from $10 billion in 2004 to $20 billion by 2007.
President Hu said that this partnership symbolized “a new
international political order that favored developing countries.”
In the weeks that followed, China signed important investment and
trade agreements with Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, and
Cuba. Of particular interest, in December 2004, President Hugo
Chavez of Venezuela visited China and agreed to give it wide-ranging
access to his country’s oil reserves. Venezuela is the world’s fifth
largest oil exporter and normally sells about 60% of its output to
the United States, but under the new agreements China will be
allowed to operate 15 mature oil fields in eastern Venezuela. China
will invest around $350 million to extract oil and another $60
million in natural gas wells.
China is also working to integrate East Asia’s smaller countries
into some form of new economic and political community. Such an
alignment, if it comes into being, will certainly erode American and
Japanese influence in the area. In November 2004, the ten nations
that make up ASEAN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the
Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam), met in the Laotian
capital of Vientiane, joined by the leaders of China, Japan, and
South Korea. The United States was not invited and the Japanese
officials seemed uncomfortable being there. The purpose was to plan
for an East Asian summit meeting to be held in November 2005 to
begin creating an “East Asia Community.” In December 2004, the ASEAN
countries and China also agreed to create a free-trade zone among
themselves by 2010.
According to Edward Cody of the Washington Post, “Trade between
China and the 10 ASEAN countries has increased about 20% a year
since 1990, and the pace has picked up in the last several years.”
This trade hit $78.2 billion in 2003 and was reported to be about
$100 billion by the end of 2004. As the senior Japanese political
commentator Yoichi Funabashi observes, “The ratio of intra-regional
trade [in East Asia] to worldwide trade was nearly 52% in 2002.
Though this figure is lower than the 62% in the EU, it tops the 46%
of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. East Asia is
thus becoming less dependent on the U.S. in terms of trade.”
China is the primary moving force behind these efforts. According to
Funabashi, China’s leadership plans to use the country’s explosive
economic growth and its ever more powerful links to regional trading
partners to marginalize the United States and isolate Japan in East
Asia. He argues that the United States underestimated how deeply
distrusted it had become in the region thanks to its narrow-minded
and ideological response to the East Asian financial crisis of 1997,
which it largely caused. On November 30, 2004, Michael Reiss, the
director of policy planning in the State Department, said in Tokyo,
“The U.S., as a power in the Western Pacific, has an interest in
East Asia. We would be unhappy about any plans to exclude the U.S.
from the framework of dialogue and cooperation in this region.” But
it is probably already too late for the Bush administration to do
much more than delay the arrival of a China-dominated East Asian
community, particularly because of declining American economic and
financial strength.
For Japan, the choices are more difficult still. Sino-Japanese
enmity has had a long history in East Asia, always with disastrous
outcomes. Before World War II, one of Japan’s most influential
writers on Chinese affairs, Hotsumi Ozaki, prophetically warned that
Japan, by refusing to adjust to the Chinese revolution and instead
making war on it, would only radicalize the Chinese people and
contribute to the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party. He
spent his life working on the question “Why should the success of
the Chinese revolution be to Japan’s disadvantage?” In 1944, the
Japanese government hanged Ozaki as a traitor, but his question
remains as relevant today as it was in the late 1930s.
Why should China’s emergence as a rich, successful country be to the
disadvantage of either Japan or the United States? History teaches
us that the least intelligent response to this development would be
to try to stop it through military force. As a Hong Kong wisecrack
has it, China has just had a couple of bad centuries and now it’s
back. The world needs to adjust peacefully to its legitimate claims
— one of which is for other nations to stop militarizing the Taiwan
problem — while checking unreasonable Chinese efforts to impose its
will on the region. Unfortunately, the trend of events in East Asia
suggests we may yet see a repetition of the last Sino-Japanese
conflict, only this time the U.S. is unlikely to be on the winning
Source citations and other references for this Tomgram are available
on the web site of the Japan Policy Research Institute.
Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research
Institute. The first two books in his Blowback Trilogy — Blowback:
The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, and The Sorrows of
Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic — are now
available in paperback. The third volume is being written.

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