What's the Rationale for Seeing China as Enemy?

William Pfaff
The International Herald Tribune

PARIS Why is the new Bush administration preparing to go to war with China? The question may seem a provocation, but that is what the administration seems to be doing, and it is important that it explain itself. Since January the military estimations and foreign policy speculations of the vice president and the secretary of defense, and their principal advisers, have been consistently framed in terms of eventual conflict, if not war, with China. The supposed conclusions of the Pentagon's strategic review, as leaked to the press, demand redirection of the main military effort from Europe to Asia. Forces and weapons are to be designed or reconfigured to project power across the Pacific.
Self-fulfilling prophecy? If China is treated as an enemy, it will become one. A second consequence is to undermine the existing U.S. position in the Far East as an ally of Japan and South Korea. Neither wants a war between Washington and Beijing, into which each would risk being drawn. Neither sees any reason for such a war. Yet the course the administration is following undermines relations with both countries. It could end in a crisis in alliance relations and an eventual end to American base rights.
There are now a U.S. Army corps command, the 5th Air Force command and two large permanent naval bases in Japan, plus 20,000 Marines on Okinawa, where they are a constant irritant to U.S-Japanese relations. There are army and air force commands, and 36,000 troops, in South Korea.
The best realistic contribution to good U.S. relations with Japan and South Korea, as well as with China, would be negotiations to reduce and eventually withdraw those troop deployments - the exact opposite of current Bush administration policy. If the United States does not move in that direction on its own initiative, it could eventually find itself ordered out.
The administration seems convinced that there is no political solution to the Korea or Taiwan problems. Yet sooner or later there have to be political solutions. Neither North Korea nor China has the military means for any other kind of "solution."
China's threats to invade Taiwan are bluff; the attempt would fail, even if the United States did not intervene, and the consequences would devastate China economically. The American and South Korean confrontation with impoverished North Korea is an anomalous legacy of the Korean War. North Korea has cleverly managed and exploited the existing state of tension with South Korea, but it has absolutely nothing to gain from a war.
China's foreign policy today is entirely predictable. It is a reasonable policy, in terms of China's position, past and national character. China has never been a global power or thought of itself as one, like the European great powers or the United States. It has always considered itself the unique "Middle Kingdom," culturally superior to everyone else, surrounded by "barbarian" neighbors, the latter expected to defer to Chinese primacy, pay tribute etc., but never considered equals or legitimate rivals.
It has no military forces capable of projection beyond its frontiers. It has a large army that one could call irresistible in defense, incapable of offense and, overall, an expensive liability, unless someone is so unwise as to invade China. It possesses limited and essentially defensive air and naval forces.
China currently has some 20 nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States, and absolutely no second-strike capacity. It has no rational reason to attack the United States, except in retaliation for an American attack on China.
Today, Chinese policy is to reincorporate its historical territories, even when they are, or have been, in dispute (Hong Kong, Macao, Tibet, Taiwan, islands in the South China Sea). This is inconvenient for some of its neighbors but poses no threat to fundamental U.S. interests. There is no evidence that China has further ambitions, although it would no doubt defend itself if it were challenged. Meanwhile, Japan, the world's second economy and a far more important trading partner with America, has installed a new government with more nationalistic views than any of its postwar predecessors. Its new prime minister has proposed rewriting Japan's American-imposed pacifist constitution.
The mainstream Japanese press discusses whether the American model of society and economy really is appropriate to Japan. There is open discussion of negotiating an end to U.S. military base rights that, in the context of conflict between the United States and China, threaten to become a liability. Japan absolutely does not share the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld view of China as a military threat, either to American interests or to those of Japan itself. If that view prevails in Washington's future policy, Japan will have serious reason to dissociate itself from the United States.
The new administration seems to be leading the United States toward a break with Japan, and into intensified and unnecessary conflict with China. How can this be justified? One would like to hear a serious explanation.