Time to Bring the Troops Home
China is another matter. No sane figure in the Pentagon wants a war with China, and all serious US militarists know that China's minuscule nuclear capacity is not offensive but a deterrent against the overwhelming US power arrayed against it (twenty archaic Chinese warheads versus more than 7,000 US warheads). Taiwan, whose status constitutes the still incomplete last act of the Chinese civil war, remains the most dangerous place on earth. Much as the 1914 assassination of the Austrian crown prince in Sarajevo led to a war that no one wanted, a misstep in Taiwan by any side could bring the United States and China into a conflict that neither wants. Such a war would bankrupt the United States, deeply divide Japan and probably end in a Chinese victory, given that China is the world's most populous country and would be defending itself against a foreign aggressor. More seriously, it could easily escalate into a nuclear holocaust.
Since any Taiwanese attempt to declare its independence formally would be viewed as a challenge to China's sovereignty, forward-deployed US forces on China's borders have virtually no deterrent effect. The United States uses satellites to observe changes in China's basic military capabilities. But the coastal surveillance flights by our twelve (now eleven) EP-3E Aries II spy planes, like the one that was forced down off Hainan Island, seek information that is useful only in an imminent battle. They are inherently provocative and inappropriate when used to monitor a country with which we are at peace. The United States itself maintains a 200-mile area off its coasts in which it intercepts any aircraft attempting similar reconnaissance.
America's provocative military posture in East Asia makes war with China more likely because it legitimizes military strategies in both Beijing and Taipei as well as in Washington and Tokyo. Although the spy-plane incident may have provoked new caution in a few Taiwanese who fear becoming the battleground in a China-US war, it also emboldens those who advocate independence from China to continue fostering Chinese-American conflict as a cover for their own aspirations. Former President Lee Teng-hui's controversial visits to both Japan and the United States may be an attempt to do precisely that.
Virtually all mainlanders and most Taiwanese believe the United States is interfering in a domestic conflict. Taiwan has already insured that any mainland military attempt to take over the island would create an areawide crisis and thereby derail China's effort to develop through peaceful commerce. So long as Taiwan does not reopen the civil war by unilaterally declaring its independence, the mainland is content to let it govern itself--as it has demonstrated through more than fifty years of Taiwanese-US provocations.
The primary focus of China's foreign policy since its shift to a commercial strategy of economic development has not been on expanding its territory or influence at the expense of other nations but on settling old, irredentist claims to places that Imperial China, whose last dynasty ended in 1912, allegedly lost because of foreign activity. The primary ones in question have long been (1) Hong Kong, which was returned to China in 1997; (2) Taiwan; (3) various island groups in the South China Sea, which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is handling; and (4) Tibet, where China's claims are spurious.
The economic trend is mitigating all these problems, if only the US military will give it time to work. In contrast to all other East Asian countries, China has welcomed foreign direct investment, which currently amounts to about $350 billion. Only Britain, where foreigners have invested $394 billion, and the United States, where they have invested $1.1 trillion, outrank China on this score. Moreover, China has moderated its regional disputes with countries like Vietnam, whenever pursuit of them seemed incompatible with its widely popular economic strategy. Only in Tibet are China's irredentist claims seriously overstated, but this area is hostage to China's fears of future confrontations with a nuclear-powered India and the unstable Islamic world of Central Asia.
Still another reason why US forces say they must remain in Asia, particularly in Japan, is that Japan itself may once again become a threat to its neighbors. This argument is increasingly distasteful to Japanese, who point out that paying for American bases on their own soil as watchdogs is tantamount to paying for their own jailers. The Japanese also argue that their past history and current demographics (16 percent of the population over 65 and a below-replacement birthrate) make revived militarism about as likely as revived slavery in the United States.
In lieu of concrete security threats in East Asia, some US strategists have put forth the argument that if so much as a single American soldier is brought home, the result will be "instability." Actually, there has been a good deal of instability in East Asia despite the American military presence, from the economic meltdown of 1997 to the most serious cases of nuclear proliferation in forty years in India and Pakistan and the destruction of East Timor by American-trained Indonesian forces while the United States looked on.