Hysteria on China

This op-ed by James Pinkerton (via RealClearPolitics) is typical of the hysteria in many corners of the chattering classes that has greeted China’s test of an ASAT missile, the kind of breezy certainty that China is definitely, one-hundred percent, no doubt about it the biggest threat America faces and we better do something about it NOW.

In the Jain / Buddhist / et al parable of the blind men and the elephant, Pinkerton has grasped the tail firmly and is utterly convinced that he’s holding a snake that has to be smothered now.

This kind of thinking is utterly retrograde — much like Lou Dobbs’s fulminating against “Red China.”

As I’ve said before, China is exactly like the elephant in the above-mentioned parable. No country can form policy based on a single facet of its behavior, and to do so is to court disaster.

As for Pinkerton, I specifically object to this throw away line:

The Chinese military is not independent. So, if China shot down a satellite, it’s because the leadership in Beijing wanted it shot down – as part of its plans for fighting a possible war with the United States.

Of course, no bureaucracy is entirely independent of the government of which it is a part. But the trend in recent years has been greater autonomy for the People’s Liberation Army as it has become less politicized and more professionalized — and accordingly, a more serious force to be reckoned with in bureaucratic disputes.

So it is entirely possible that the Foreign Ministry’s surprise is not feigned. The PLA simply might have neglected to inform other ministries of a policy area that is exclusively its domain. Hmm, not altogether different than the acrimony between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. Of course, it is unsettling that no one in the PRC’s government anticipated that this might concern other countries, but then the PRC’s opacity — and, in particular, the PLA’s opacity — is not news to anyone.

And as for China’s “plans for fighting a possible war with the United States,” well, of course. If you’re going to be in a war, you might as well put yourself in a position to succeed. But the question that Pinkerton neglects to ask is whether the US and China are likely to find themselves coming to blows. If he asked that, he would see that apart for Taiwan, there is no bilateral issue between the US and China today that could result in war. Will there be friction? Absolutely. No power of China’s magnitude could rise without causing major global friction. But this is not a re-run of Imperial Germany or Imperial Japan. If anything, it is a re-run of the rise of the United States, which caused friction but did not spark a major global war. And given the decline in the importance of violence in great-power relations, there is even less reason to anticipate Sino-US conflict.

Regarding Taiwan, as the Taiwanese public backs away from the brinkmanship of Chen Shui-bian and returns to the realism of the Kuomintang, the risks of war in the Taiwan Straits will diminish, and the situation will return to as it was in the 1980s, when the US and China had a mutual understanding of the situation resulting in its being significantly demilitarized.

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