[VIEWPOINT]China’s alliance gets strongerThe line in the water that divides East Asia into rival alliances has been widened and deepened in the last few weeks, largely due to the eruption of anti-Japanese emotions in China and anti-American outbursts in South Korea.
This line runs from the sea between Japan and Korea, south through the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait into the South China Sea. To the east are the United States, Japan and Taiwan, which are allied by treaty or political commitment. To the west are China, North Korea and South Korea, with China seeking to turn the two Koreas into vassals like their kingdom many centuries ago.
The fundamental issue is which alliance will prevail in East Asia, the autocratic coalition led by China that seeks to drive the United States from the region or the democratic grouping led by the United States that seeks a stable balance of political and military power in which trade and economic development flourishes.
James R. Lilley, who has been U.S. ambassador in both Beijing and Seoul, wrote recently: “Japan and China have been at each other’s throats for centuries over who dominates the Western Pacific, and particularly Taiwan and Korea.” He added: “On sea, land and in the commercial arena, the two countries have used everything from piracy and intrigue to coups to advance their own ends.”
The critical question today is whether the current confrontation will lead to hostilities. Another U.S. diplomat doesn’t think so: “It doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “There is no rational reason for such a war.” Many wars, however, have been started by irrational emotions that led to miscalculation. That is the danger for every nation involved in this dispute.
At the moment, Beijing and its allies in Pyongyang, which has long spewed venom at Japan, the United States and Seoul, which seems on the verge of dissolving its security ties with the United States in favor of sliding into an orbit around China, appear to have the upper hand. The reasons:
1) The United States, under the Bush administration, is preoccupied with the war in Iraq, rebuilding Afghanistan, pacifying the Middle East and the campaign against terror. In Asia, Bush officials have focused on North Korea’s ambitions to acquire nuclear arms, agreed on “common strategic objectives” with Japan, but have failed to forge a comprehensive policy on China.
2) In Japan, Foreign Minister Nobutake Machimura has demanded an apology from China for permitting vandals to rampage against the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and to attack Japanese citizens and businesses in several Chinese cities. China has turned that down flat.
Beyond that, however, Japan has not responded to China’s demand that Tokyo apologize for its invasion of China during World War II. Japanese officials say various prime ministers have apologized 17 or 18 times but have compiled no public record for it. Nor has Tokyo demanded credit for lending China $30 billion to build the infrastructure that has attracted foreign investment.
3) The government in Taiwan, which counts on the United States and Japan to help defend it against Chinese threats, has lagged in helping itself. An $18 billion arms purchase offered by the United States has been held up in the legislature for several years and military conscription has been cut to 15 months from 22 months.
In addition, leaders of the opposition Nationalist Party have undercut President Chen Shui-bian, who favors Taiwan’s continued separation and de facto independence from China, by looking for an accommodation with Beijing. China claims that Taiwan is part of China.
The coalition led by China is not free of problems. A sampling of the Western press shows a backlash generated by China’s belligerence. The Times of London editorialized: “China has exploited and exacerbated historic bitterness ... to divert attention from domestic tensions over economic disparities, unemployment, corruption and political restrictions.”
In South Korea, President Roh Moo-hyun has said his nation could defend itself, suggesting that his nation no longer needed U.S. forces there. He has proposed that South Korea be the “balancer of Northeast Asia” among China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Not all Koreans agree. The leader of the opposition party, Park Geun-hye, asserted that President Roh should “realize that it would be extremely difficult to restore the close relationship with the United States once the damage has been done.” She contended that “slackening the alliance with the United States will only create diplomatic isolation and harm the nation.”
Altogether, however, the Chinese alliance will continue to overshadow the U.S.-Japan-Taiwan coalition unless Washington, Tokyo and Taipei get their act together.
* The writer is a former Tokyo correspondent of the New York Times.
by Richard Halloran