An unsettling view of mainland ascent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2007, 12:00am

China's rise as an economic power has plenty of people in the United States seriously worried.

While the mainland has been an excellent source of cheap labour and markets for American companies, there is a niggling worry in the back of many minds that this may be the beginning of the end in terms of US domination of the global economy.

In the next 20 or 30 years, it is conceivable the mainland will be bumping up against the US in terms of its economy's size and political influence. That scenario seriously concentrates the minds of those committed to Pax Americana.

But would the mainland's ascendancy ever provoke a war with the United States and for what reasons? This compelling question is asked in A War Like No Other: The Truth About China's Challenge to America by Richard C. Bush and Michael E. O'Hanlon.

It is a well-researched and well-written book by two scholars from the respected Brookings Institution, not an alarmist, right-wing diatribe.

The authors point out there are many tensions in US-Beijing relations over trade, intellectual property rights, the yuan and other issues. But none of these are likely to spark a military conflict.

Unlike the rise of Japan and Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, the mainland is a 'status quo' power that does not seek to destroy and remake the world in its own image. It has built its wealth on the free-trade framework established by the US after the second world war and has a stake in maintaining global growth and stability. But the mainland has a serious blind spot - one thing that could spark the first all-out war between two nuclear powers - and it is called Taiwan.

The mainland considers Taiwan an integral part of its territory while the US is a long-standing ally of the island sworn to protect it from any mainland attack. Inject into that dynamic the feisty and increasingly 'pro independence' nature of Taiwanese politics and you create a mixture that risks exploding. Using a series of clever scenarios, including the rise of an ultra-nationalist Taiwanese leader bent on declaring independence and a series of missteps by both Washington and Beijing, the authors argue war is possible and could even escalate into a devastating nuclear exchange.

More likely is something short of this, including a naval blockade of the island, missile attacks and cyber warfare. But any conflict would plunge the region into another Cold War, with major damage to regional economies and growth.

Mr Bush and Mr O'Hanlon argue leaders in Beijing, Washington and Taipei have to work harder to establish trust and clearer channels of communication to defuse any tensions before they escalate into all-out war. This may be hard given the historical baggage carried over this issue and the 'red hot' buttons hit on both sides of the strait each time Taiwan independence is mentioned, but it must be tried.

The authors tend to overestimate the moral judgments and abilities of the US political establishment on this issue while underestimating the ability of the mainland and Taiwan to keep the peace. Their economies are now so interlinked that any conflict would be devastating to both sides. But this book contains many objective points that policy-makers should heed.

The mainland is in a unique historical position; a once great power given another opportunity to rise again. It has a lot of residual goodwill around the globe because of this very development.

As the book notes: 'It's like watching the fattest kid in school win the 100-metre hurdles.' Whether Beijing jeopardises this rise to the top by sparking a war with the most powerful country on the planet over a small island remains to be seen.




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