The U.S. is confronting China with a variety of
issues this coming week as Condoleezza Rice makes her first East Asia appearance
as secretary of state. Most of these issues are old problems – namely human
rights, the Taiwan Straits, North Korea, and the trade deficit, among others.
But the recent joint
statement after the 2+2 meeting between U.S. and Japanese ministers changed
the dynamic of the problems facing Sino-U.S. attempts at finally creating a
"strategic partnership." As did North Korea's February admission that
they did indeed possess nuclear weapons.
It should be clear by now that a strategic partnership between the U.S. and
China is not a short- or even mid-term possibility in East Asia.
Economically, things couldn't be more robust: Americans still order Chinese
goods by the boatload – such that neither nations' ports can handle the traffic
and now Lenovo is (almost)
cleared to buy IBM's laptop division. Services and investment, takeovers and
joint ventures – the air is thick with money, and both Americans and Chinese
are busy snapping it up.
But money can't buy you love. And there remains a decided lack of love in East
Asia between the two main powers bordering the Pacific.
Nowhere is this contradiction more clear than
with Japan. Chinese love the Japanese style – the high socks with the skirt
and pig tails for the girls, and the sculpted dyed "wild" look for
the fellas. Musically, Chinese pop stars are lagging behind most others in East
Asia – the underground in China is a different story, but where do they get
those ideas for a punk band and a hip-hop group? Who are the models?
Koreans and Japanese for the most part. There are 100,000 Japanese in Shanghai,
and they brought their food, music, and culture with them – rarely does one
hear of Sino-Japanese street brawls or overt confrontation of any kind. On the
contrary, Japanese electronics and Chinese factories are quite happy with the
relationship they have built. Outside of Taiwan and Hong Kong, Japan is China's
most important and most stable economic
But ask the man on the street what he thinks of the Japanese, read a Chinese
(or Japanese) history book, visit Nankjing, check out what the People's Liberation
Army or the foreign ministry have to say about Japan. Play football with a bunch
of Japanese against a bunch of Chinese.
A beautiful development lies with the youth on both sides and the bonds built
over years of contact – Buddhist enthusiasts from the islands smile together
with curators at Dunhuang's
glory in Gansu province. But, in general, there is still very little love.
For the Chinese, it's all about WWII and it always will be. For the Japanese,
it may be a little more complicated – a bit of racism perhaps, and a little
annoyance with Beijing's constant blustering and a resurgent right in Koizumi's
Liberal Democrat Party – a party dedicated to bringing Japan back into the fold
of "normal" countries. Which means a new constitution and with it
a new policy toward neighbors like China, Taiwan, and the Koreas.
And this is the crux – for Japan to become normal again, it means receiving
U.S. "permission" to change the constitution. And more importantly,
for the Japanese, an overhaul of the current security agreement in which U.S.
military bases are scattered throughout the Japanese islands, causing problems
and infuriating the locals.
Japan may be viewed by many as the Britain of the Far East – a lapdog of American
imperial and/or national security interests, but perhaps Germany would be a
more interesting comparison. There are still quite a few U.S. military personnel
in Germany, and Germany's economic rise was facilitated by U.S. cash – as was
Japan's. But it was the blood and sweat of Germans and migrant populations that
turned Germany into the number-one exporter and inventor in the world. The U.S.
just provided the market.
Germany is also the engine and de facto leader of Europe (if there is
one). Japan has gone through a very similar process – from devastated defeated
fascist Empire to the center of all electronic production and the largest economy
Britain is a has-been with historical ties to the U.S. Perhaps the U.S. sees
Britain as something of a role model/father/example of what Empire was and what
it can become.
After Germany reached "economic independence," the security relationship
between the two remained viable as long as the USSR remained a threat – splits
over selling arms to China and the War on Terrorism are the end-result of U.S.
efforts to turn Germany into a proxy.
When North Korea shoots off at the mouth, yelling
out "no hostile intentions" and "grave grim dire consequences
for all" – Condi Rice says she won't play North Korea's game. But only
after labeling them and several other nations (Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and
Iran) "outposts of tyranny."
Most every article out there on the problems facing the multi-nation talks
and North Korea's nuclear activities mentions China's "significant leverage"
and U.S. frustration with China's seeming inability to coerce the North Koreans
to see sense.
Please. Every time North Korea spits some venom, China suppresses a chuckle.
Nothing could be more convenient for China than to wrap up the U.S. and Japan
in a cloth made of destitute North Koreans, their random threats, and their
ever changing attitudes toward the multi-nation talks. While the U.S. stretches
itself thin all over the planet, China barrels ahead making that money – money
that will eventually find itself in the pockets of European
Naturally, crazy broke North Koreans with their fingers on The Button is something
to worry about – and this is where China's leverage comes in. Any weapon the
North Koreans have, including a SCUD derivative recently discovered and discussed
came from China. If these weapons were to actually be used, it would be Hu,
not Kim, who would give the go-ahead.
Does China want war? The answer for the next few years is a definite "no."
An emphatic "no." Too much is riding on the Chinese people and their
pocketbooks to get involved in any conflict now. Any roaring done by the dragon
is but protocol – the unfortunate protocol of nation-to-nation dialogue.
Could China ever use North Korea if it came to a conflict?
If the conflict were, say, in the Taiwan Straits and the adversary happened
to be a joint U.S.-Japanese force hell-bent on "keeping the peace,"
Defusing a Proxy
Proxies are shadows, the smoke and mirrors put
up by a force behind the curtains to confuse and distract. Proxies are doomed,
expendable, and dangerous – a liability when the winds of change blow.
Proxies only have power if they are viewed as moving bodies and not bodies
The Bush administration's policy of "making the world democratic"
invites competitors to create shadows in need of democracy – phantom menaces
that lead to flocks of wild geese and not much more. The U.S. could ignore North
Korea and instead concentrate on what it is exactly that defines the U.S.-Japan
alliance and build upon it. It would relieve a lot of U.S. officials of North
Korea-induced heartburn, if nothing else.
For China, the more the U.S. follows the smoke and gets lost in the mirrors,