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Fear Factor


Too bad Chinese President Hu Jintao can’t open up and share like Professor Zhu Feng.
Zhu, who heads up the International Security Program at Peking University, considers himself a “pragmatist” in matters of war and peace. He thinks Hu is too. He also has a sense of what the leader of his country had to face in the United States in late April as he toured the U.S., clinging robotically to a refrain about “harmony” as China bashers riddled him with indignities and invectives. At a recent conference in Tokyo, filled with Japanese peers and policy wonks, Zhu met with lots of the same guff. But, unlike Hu, Zhu is free to put it in perspective. “The U.S. and Japan are fearful of China’s future, so they are confronting China,” observed the square-headed scholar on returning home. “Beijing’s just trying to calm the fear, rather than fan the fear.”
“But how to make it very clear to the world?” pondered Zhu. “I don’t think they’re very skilled at that. On the contrary, they’re very poor.”
No, coherency hasn’t been their forte. In the realm of diplomacy, it’s amazing to note, Hu’s Party machine has proven less adept at staying on-message than Bush’s. In late 2003, Hu adopted a fairly well-balanced neologism for the country’s ascendance: the “peaceful rise”. The doctrine caught on fast around the world. But at home, Hu’s spin soon prompted internal debate. Politburo and People’s Liberation Army colleagues deemed the word “peace” too wimpy on Taiwan. Some doves in the Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, thought “rise” too intimidating. While scholar-cadres still use “peaceful rise”, Hu was soon forced to warp it down to “peaceful development”, which gives the blatantly outmoded sense that China is stuck in the Third World (only around half of it is). Hu has since introduced his own foggy vision of a “harmonious society” within “a harmonious world”. Such is Hu’s way of hinting at the disharmony that surrounds him.
But outsiders seem to be missing the cues, and that spells trouble. The way the best bird’s-eye viewers of geolitics see things right now, mistrust, misreading, and miscommunication have come to figure as importantly in the “threat” China’s rise poses to the present world order – which under U.S. hegemony, incidentally, has not exactly proven harmonious – as trade, energy and military tensions.
“The only thing rising faster than China,” Minxin Pei, ranking Sinologist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observes in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy, “is the hype about China.” The soft-power mastermind Joseph S. Nye, Jr., in a commentary last March, opened by echoing Thucydides: “Belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes.” He ended with a riff on F.D.R.: “the U.S. and China have to be wary of fear itself.”
Meanwhile, the two sides have been computer-simulating clashes with one another in the Straits of Taiwan and Malacca. And the real danger that mutual mistrust could add injury to insult has become clearer of late.
Witness their divergence of views in March, when China announced double-digit growth in its annual war chest (just as it has nearly every other year for more than a decade). Wen Jiabao, China’s humble-pie premier, insisted that the hike was meant “entirely to improve the army’s conditions and ability to defend itself.” But in Washington, where the Defense Department estimates China underreports its spending by 100-200 percent, practically no one was buying that line. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice described China as a potentially “negative force” with expansionist tendencies. The Pentagon was already bracing for the worst, according to the trial balloon the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz sent up the day Hu was at the White House. President Bush, reports The Times, has approved a comprehensive new military “hedge” strategy to contain China. Robert Zoellick, the State Department’s lead-man on China, told the paper: “I’m partly saying to them, ‘Look, if you, the Chinese, are not transparent as you grow and you become more influential, and you add to your military, you will recognize that others are going to respond to that.’”
Translate “transparency” as “democracy” if you like. But realistically, where China’s concerned, highlighting the innate clash of values between the two powers is not going to help much to mend ties. The better question is “What kind of power does China want to be?” as one editor in Japan put it to me recently. “Is it merely trying to expand its power to protect its interests, like any other country? Or is it indeed a military threat – as so many Japanese politicians suggest?”
My answer: A resounding “yes.” Yes, China is acting 100 percent out of self-interest. And yes, it is becoming more of a military “threat” in order to safeguard its interests. And as Zhu suggested, the current Chinese government should bear the brunt of the blame for the difficulty of coming up with a straighter answer.

So one sun-blanched spring afternoon, Zhu, a former visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, took a shot at answering it himself. He sat in his office in the new international relations complex at Peking U., overlooking the Crayola-green lawn of an inner courtyard, smoking peppery Chinese cigarettes. “Yes, China’s military budget is increasing quickly and dramatically,” he noted. “But my conclusion is that its fighting capabilities are not.”
Huh? Not with millions of soldiers and billions of dollars?
For starters, Zhu began in reply, Chinese policy calls for “moderate military modernization”. That core security strategy dates back to the close of the Cold War and China’s reopening to the West, and Hu and his Communist Party cohorts, who call the shots in the situation room, “have not substantially changed it.” Zhu gave two reasons. One: “Top leaders still really recognize it is essential to subordinate military buildup to domestic construction.” And “Secondly,” aside from deterring the self-ruled island of Taiwan from moves toward formal independence – which the Chinese firmly regard as a domestic affair – “they don’t want to raise the concerns of the global powers.”
“But isn’t it a little late for that?” I asked. China is a global power today, at least economically, and its domestic concerns spill far overseas.
Right, said Zhu. “So that’s why hardliners in the People’s Liberation Army always complain, ‘…Why can’t we refocus our sights on this immediate concern?’” he said. “The hawks say, ‘Now our nation’s oil dependence will make the shipping lanes [a source of] vulnerability.’”
And, to a degree that Zhu admits he can’t quite pinpoint, Beijing’s paid heed to them. According to one internal Pentagon report, Newsweek reported last year, China is plotting a so-called “string of pearls” around southern Asia to safeguard oil supplies from the Middle East. Beijing bankrolled 80 percent of the new Pakistani port of Gwadar, for example, and has developed oil transfer hubs and listening posts in Bangladesh and Myanmar. A “big share” of China’s military budget, conceded Zhu, is going toward overhauling its naval arsenal. How much? “I’m not clear, either”.
But on the other hand, he maintained, the buildup would be bigger and faster if not for the “self-discipline” of the Chinese leadership. The overhead costs of maintaining bases and demobilizing troops still account for most of the budget, he said. And the state’s plans to trim the army’s bloated ranks of 2.3 million to 2 million active-duty personnel have been slowed, ironically, by its own disgruntled veterans; they periodically rise up in protest over unemployment and unpaid pensions. Says Zhu: “The oversized military is actually a symbol of how China is less dangerous.” Beijing is not known to have produced “any weapons-grade plutonium or uranium in two decades,” he added. And blueprints to build China’s first battle-ready aircraft carriers remain “on paper”, noted Zhu. Cost is one hang-up: some of the top military brass want to start with one, but strategists say it’s senseless to build fewer than a fleet of three. But the biggest problem, according to Zhu: “Where to deploy them?”
The obvious spot would be in the vicinity the Malacca Strait, the treacherously narrow passageway through which 80 percent of China’s oil imports travel. There the junta in Myanmar would surely grant Beijing a naval base. But the leadership, contended Zhu, has passed on that option for now. It’s also turned down invites to station troops in the neighboring lands of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Why? For one, Beijing’s leary about encroaching on Washington’s surf and turf. Moreover, it doesn’t want an arms race with wartime rivals in Tokyo. Asserted Zhu: “Is that what we want to see, a re-armed Japan?”
China’s strategic dilemma has put Hu in quite a pickle, explained Zhu. When the professor chats with PLA officers, he told me, they remain “confused” and “panicked” about their sub-par strike capabilities – even against Taiwan (at whom mainland China has 600 missiles pointed). “They say, ‘how capable are we of beating down Taiwan’s independence seekers’?” In a freaky outburst at a conference last year in Beijing, a general named Zhu Chenghu bluntly warned the United States to prepare for some of its cities to be nuked if it attacked China in a war over Taiwan. And when President Bush signed a nuclear energy pact with India in early March, it was another “strong stimulus to the hardliners,” said Professor Zhu, who is not related to the general. “If [Taiwan President]Chen Shui-bian really pushes the envelope, if the American government becomes much tougher, I don’t know if the [Party] mainstream can stay coherent.”
Thus Hu preaches “harmony” – ad nauseum. He means so much more than he can say.

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