I recognize that it (China) is becoming a considerable threat.”
— Foreign Minister Taro Aso
For as long as I have been in the China-watching business (more than 40 years now), there has always been a China “threat.” It began with the 1950-53 Korean civil war, which initially had nothing to do with China.
Even so, Beijing was blamed and, as punishment, the United States decided to intervene not only in Korea but also in China’s civil war with Taiwan, and later threaten a move against China by sending troops close to China’s borders with Korea. When China reacted to that move by sending in its own troops, the China-threat people moved into high gear.
The next China threat was supposed to operate via the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. Coping with it meant the West had to prop up a range of incompetent, corrupt rulers in the area, and intervene cruelly to suppress revolts by local Chinese against discrimination in Malaya and then in Sarawak.
It also meant that the U.S., Britain and Australia had to work very hard and covertly to prevent the 1959 election of an intelligent Chinese, Lee Kwan Yew, to the Singapore premiership. Lee was then seen, amazingly, as a front for those dreaded Chinese Communists.
The China-threat lobby moved into overdrive over Vietnam in the early 1960s. There a clearly nationalist-inspired civil war supported more by Moscow than by Beijing was denounced by Washington and Canberra as the first step in planned Chinese “aggression” into Asia.
In Moscow in 1964, I had to accompany an Australian foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, in a foolish, U.S.-instigated bid to persuade the Soviet Union to side with the West against those aggressive Chinese. Hasluck gave up only after a bemused Soviet prime minister, Alexei Kosygin, told him point-blank that Moscow was doing all it could to help North Vietnam, would continue to give help, and that it would like to see Beijing doing a lot more.
In 1962, as China desk officer in Canberra, I had to witness an extraordinary attempt to label as unprovoked aggression a very limited and justified Chinese counterattack against an Indian military thrust across the Indian-claimed border line in the North East Frontier Area. Threat scenarios then had China seeking ocean access via the Bay of Bengal.
The London Economist even had Beijing seeking to move south via Afghanistan.
Then came the allegations that China was seeking footholds in Laos, northern Thailand and Myanmar — all false. U.S., British and Australian encouragement for the 1965 massacre of half a million leftwing supporters in Indonesia was also justified as needed to prevent China from gaining a foothold there.
So too was the U.S. and Australia’s 1975 approval for Indonesia’s brutal takeover of East Timor.
Since then we have seen Beijing’s claims against Taiwan condemned as aggressive, despite the fact that every Western nation, including the U.S., has formally recognized or accepted China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. China’s efforts to assert control over Tibet are also branded as aggression even though Tibet has never been recognized as an independent entity.
And so it continues to the present day. With the alleged Soviet threat to Japan having evaporated, we now have an army of Japanese and U.S. hawks — Foreign Minister Aso included — ramping up China as an alleged threat to Japan and the Far East.
Much is made of Beijing’s recent increases in military spending. But those increases began from a very low level; until recently its military were more concerned with running companies and growing their own vegetables.
And Beijing faces a U.S.-Japan military buildup in East Asia that is avowedly anti-China and that spends a lot more than China does.
Of course, if the Chinese military were placing bases and sending spy planes and ships close to the U.S. coast, and were bombing U.S. embassies, the U.S. role in that buildup might be justified. But so far that has not happened.
Tokyo’s claims to be threatened by China in the East China Sea are equally dubious. So far, the only shots fired in anger in that area have been Japan’s, in a legally dubious huntdown and sinking of a North Korean vessel.
Tokyo makes much of China’s challenge to Japan’s claimed EEZ (exclusive economic zone) median line of control in the East China Sea (Beijing says the EEZ border should be based on the continental shelf extending close to the Ryukyu islands and proposes joint development between the two claim lines).
But international law on EEZ borders still does not firmly support Japan’s median line position. And the recent Australia-East Timor agreement on joint development of continental shelf oil/gas resources in the Timor Sea, and the 1974 Japan-South Korean agreement for joint development in the East China Sea continental shelf, both strongly suggest that Beijing’s joint development proposal is not entirely unreasonable.
But no doubt these details will be dismissed as irrelevant. Our powers-that-be need threats to justify their existence. As we saw during the Cold War, and more recently over Iraq, once they declare that such and such a nation is a threat, it becomes impossible to stop the escalation. The other side naturally has to show some reaction. The military-industrial- intelligence complex then seize on this as the pretext further to expand budgets and power. Before long the media and a raft of dubious academic and other commentators are sucked into the vortex.
Then when it is all over and the alleged threat has proved to be quite imaginary, the threat merchants move on to find another target. But not before billions have been spent. And millions have died.
Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University and a former Australian diplomat. A translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net
The Japan Times: Jan. 7, 2006
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