Sunday, June 05, 2005

When I returned to the States yesterday, the first magazine I came across was the May Atlantic Monthly. For those who haven't viewed it, the cover features a Chinese soldier whose minacious glare perfectly compliments the headline, "How We Would Fight China: The Next Cold War, by Robert D. Kaplan."

Since the issue came out a while ago, ordinarily I wouldn't bring it up now. But then I came across yesterday's lead story in The Times, entitled "Rumsfeld Issues a Sharp Rebuke to China on Arms":
In a keynote address at an Asian security conference here [Singapore], Mr. Rumsfeld argued that China's investment in missiles and up-to-date military technology posed a risk not only to Taiwan and to American interests, but also to nations across Asia that view themselves as China's trading partners, not rivals.

He said no "candid discussion of China" could neglect to address these military concerns directly, and criticized China for not admitting the full extent of what he described as its worrisome military expansion.

"Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: why this growing investment?" Mr. Rumsfeld asked.

His remarks come as Washington's stance regarding Beijing appears to be growing more critical. The United States has accused China of manipulating the value of its currency, for example, in order to increase exports, and of exerting heavy-handed pressure on Taiwan.

In my view, this story illustrates the current state of the American military and the American media far more than it does the threat China poses.

Let's start with the military first. No doubt it has access to intelligence that I do not, but I still get the feeling that they've crossed the thin line between necessary diligence and excessive paranoia. Just look at Rumsfeld's rhetoric: "Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: why this growing investment?" Surely Rumsfeld knows, however, that regional threats to China do exist. India's billion-plus democracy lies on its southwestern border, and in the northeast it has to deal with a nuclear North Korea. Then, of course, there's Japan. If these countries do not constitute security concerns from China's perspective, then I'm not sure what would. (Further, even if they didn't qualify, there are still legitimate reasons for a military build-up; if not, then America itself needs to re-explain a significant proportion of its own military expenditures.)

Given the clear reality of China's geopolitical context, the question becomes this: why is Rumsfeld arguing against a Chinese military build-up if he knows full well that they have legitimate reasons for doing so?

Here, again, lies the tenuous balance between diligence and paranoia. It is Rumsfeld's job to identify and address any threat to American sovereignty. Clearly, China's demographics, economic growth, and surging nationalism constitute such a threat, particulary to American sovereignty as exercised in the Pacific. But it is neither an imminent nor a particularly parlous threat. It simply is not in China's interest, either idealogically, politically, or economically, to attack American interests -- the country is beset with internal conflicts that it can only resolve through U.S. trade, so jeapordizing its access to American markets via an impolitic military exercise makes little to no sense.

To return to Rumsfeld, this means one of two things. Either he thinks there's a significant chance China will behave irrationally, in which case he's paranoid, or he knows that he's overreacting, in which case he's playing the fool in order to an achieve an ulterior agenda. My guess is that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. He probably sincerely does believe China is capable of behaving recklessly. But he is also probably aware of the cuts to the military made in the 1990s, when there was a lack of any conventional threat. Although we've begun a war on terror since then, the problem for the military is that it needs there to be a conventional threat -- one over which we must maintain a technological advantage -- for it to continue receiving funding for many of its more expensive weapons programs. That is not to say that defense appropriations are the sole impetus behind Rumsfeld's comments, but they do go a long way towards explaining his recent overzealousness.

* * *

Initially I mentioned that The Times story also illustrates the current state of the American media. Alas, I
don't have the time to get into that now, but stay tuned for it tomorrow.


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