Well, some extremely worrying developments are taking place in the Far East, as described very well by the following two journalists:
James Delingpole and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, both of “The Telegraph”.
To summarize, China has declared an “air-defence identification zone” to be enforced by its air-force over the Senkaku Islands, whose ownership is long disputed between itself and Japan. This is clearly a major destabilization of the status quo, and might by some be already considered as a de facto act of war in claiming air-control over territory it does not indisputably own.
There are all sorts of theories, scenarios and questions flying about. Is this a major change in China’s foreign policy? Are they just testing out the apparently weak and rudderless Obama? Could this be a “Sarajevo moment”? How big are the stakes? What have all the parties to lose? What should Japan and the West do? Some reasons for China’s actions are well explained in the afore-quoted articles – as are some answers to the questions I raise, but I would like to add my own four pennorth in comment.
We have to carefully distinguish between the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and the people, who are subjects of a dictatorship. What the CPP wants and does is not necessarily what the people want. Having said that, the people are taught from an early age (partly as a result of history) to feel that the outside world is hostile. Though the Chinese people have vastly more information and knowledge of the world than a few decades ago, SOME of this propaganda must stick. I have Chinese friends who are extremely nice, civilised and rational but who have no doubts that the Han invasion, domination and ethnic swamping of Tibet is both moral and justified. “We are doing it for their own good,” is a typical comment, along with “Tibet has always belonged to China.”, which of course is not true.
The point is, the CPP is not necessarily acting either in the people’s interests or of course according to their wishes. China is still a dictatorship; the people as a whole have little say in most policy, especially perhaps foreign policy.
The CPP is under severe strain. The internet and growing prosperity have combined to make the people much better informed and also more critical of CPP corruption. No doubt there is also the natural human urge (as I believe it to be) for “democracy”. This of course is total anathema to the CPP, whose own position is increasingly seen as problematical. It is caught in the usual and inevitable trap that dictatorships have to face. Increasing prosperity always brings with it a better-informed and more demanding people – which is of course why the North Korean regime (grotesquely supported by its vast neighbour) has reserved any kind of prosperity for itself, and kept its people in virtual starvation.
Unfortunately, is it not true to say that there are only two end scenarios to this situation? Either China will become more open, free and democratic (with the obvious corresponding decline in the power of the CPP) OR the regime will try to turn the clock back with repression. Sadly, the latter is all too often the path chosen, since no authority willingly abandons its power. (Do we still remember Tiananmen Square?). There have been increasing signs of a clampdown recently, in particular with attempts to control an already closely-monitored internet even more tightly. On the face of it, the CPP is attempting the totally impossible: greater economic freedom in conjunction with more severe political control – something has to give.
Under long-term threat to its own existence, a fascist government almost always creates external enemies to divert the people’s attention. For the afore-mentioned reasons, it may not be too difficult for the CPP to whip up nationalist – and thus aggressive – fervour, especially as the principal enemy involved is Japan, whose appalling WWII behaviour has left deep and lasting scars, even if – as with Germany – all the guilty are dead.
Indeed, just thinking about Japan is – understandably perhaps – like a red rag to a bull for many Chinese; virulent anti-Japanese nationalism is never very far below the surface, as this report from 2012 shows: “Chinese consumers are shying away from Japanese cars not just because of nationalism, but out of fear after one man in Xi’an was beaten into a coma for driving a Japanese marque.”
Chinese leaders often dress up their territorial claims with quasi-religious sentiments – and as we know, religion is often a major driver of practical lunacy. In September 2012 Foreign Minister Mr Yang reiterated China’s “solemn position on the issue of Diaoyu Islands, which have been China’s sacred territory since ancient times”.
Taiwan is also a potential major flashpoint. A former colleague of mine and expert on China told me that any declaration of independence by Taiwan would definitely provoke a military attack by the mainland. The status of Taiwan is fascinating and outlined below. In all but diplomatic status it functions as an independent state (and democracy), yet is actually “owned” in diplomatic terms by the USA.
So, is this all just mind-games or is there a real danger?
Outsiders always tend to assume that a fascist regime is very tightly controlled and run. This may be true on the surface, but who can say if the military (who after all hold the ultimate power) are always fully in tune with the political leadership? An army’s raison d’etre is to fight, and war games in the air over the disputed islands could easily lead to a serious incident (even by accident), whose consequences and knock-on effects are impossible to predict. We all remember Sarajevo, no?
On the face of it, the CPP would be insane to provoke a military conflict. Its exports would immediately collapse, it would no doubt lose all its investments in the USA. The whole of South-East Asia would be ranged against it, though the position of the Rusians is – for me at least – hard to predict. However, history has showed that when a regime’s very existence is threatened, it loses all sight of rationality.
Apart from the economic and political consequences that a military conflict would involve, China is by no means as strong militarily as its potential enemies. Its massive land forces are of little use against Japan. And do they really think that Obama is so weak he would allow them to take over all the areas they dispute, which is – somewhat predictably – almost all the sea and islands for many miles around its coasts.
As far as that goes, Obama is indeed – in my estimation .- a feeble and incompetent President. However, when the chips are down, I also believe that only an utter fool would bet against the USA, even in its weakened state.
All in all, it is a desperately-worrying situation, even though I personally believe it had to come one day. This is what dictatorships do – start wars and cause absolute misery, first stoking up nationalist sentiment. And NO, the USA did NOT start the Iraq war, since its regime had ALREADY been at war with the majority of its own people for decades.
What an absolute tragedy if a new Cold War were to start (let alone serious military action itself), involving like the last one a vast expansion in military expense and capability at a time when the world’s efforts need to be focused on resources in general (energy, water, food, medicine) and global warming. China itself is beset with serious demographic, social, political, water and and pollution problems. But as I have argued, these often weigh little when it comes to a regime’s own long-term survival.
We who were born after 1945 tend to assume that the era of major continental and inter-continental wars ended in that year. Yet history suggests that the long period of peace we have enjoyed since then is an exception, and possibly an anomaly. My personal conviction is that until all dictatorships are removed from the world – and prevented from arising – there will always be wars. Democracies do not provoke wars. They may react violently to them, but they do not (with some exceptions) start them. And by war I do include a war against its own people by a fascist regime. Iraq is an example already quoted, as are Libya and Kosovo, where the USA bombed the Serbs because of the war they were conducting against the Muslim Kosovans.
Another personal conviction is that no regime is any better than a bunch of gangsters if it has not been elected – or its revolutionary seizure of power rapidly confirmed – in a free, fair and universal vote. This of course makes the regimes of both China and Cuba illegitimate, just for starters. It is a pity this is not enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Were this to be so then ALL of the Chinese regime’s claims, demands and threats would be completely illegal. Man is politically not as advanced as he thinks …… maybe in 500 years ……
FOOTNOTE ON TAIWAN – supplied by a Daily Telegraph blogger – Chas Chan. This all seems pretty authoritative, but if anyone has an update or correction, I would be pleased to hear it.:
In the formal Treaty of Shimonoseki signed in April, 1895, the Chinese government legally ceded Taiwan to Japan. For the next 50 years, Taiwan under international law was the possession of Japan’s.The Japanese Government’s control over Taiwan ceased on August 15, 1945 when it announced its surrender in World War II. The Instrument of Surrender was signed on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, which placed “all Japanese forces wherever situated” under the command of “the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur.But the Instrument of Surrender was an armistice, not a formal peace treaty. Japan had not ceded Taiwan to the ROC. The legal authority in Taiwan remained the United States Military Government, which had delegated – delegated, not relinquished – the military occupation of Taiwan to the ROC.Japan did not sign a formal peace treaty until September 8, 1951. Known as the Treaty of San Francisco, Article 2(b) states:”Japan renounces all right, title and claim to Formosa and the Pescadores” (islands in the Formosa Straits).
But – the gargantuan but – no receiving country is specified in the treaty. In other words, Japan renounced its sovereignty over Taiwan, but did not turn over that sovereignty to either the PRC in Beijing or the ROC in Taiwan. Neither the PRC nor the ROC were invited to the San Francisco treaty conference, and neither was a signatory to the treaty.
This means that the USMG remained the sovereign legal authority in Taiwan. Article 4(b) of the treaty states this in recognizing the authority of “the United States Military Government in any of the areas referred to in Articles 2 and 3,” as does Article 23(a) recognizing “the United States of America as the principal occupying Power.”
This treaty is still in effect. In the opinion of a number of scholars of international law, Taiwan is neither a province of China over which the PRC has legitimate sovereignty, nor is Taiwan a sovereign state of itself. It is, rather, an overseas territory of the U.S.
The practical bottom line to this is that the Communist PRC government of China has no claim to Taiwan under international law. Further, as Taiwan is a U.S. territorial possession, the United States government is legally obliged to defend it – as well as the Senkaku Islands.