China’s deepening alignment with Russia, and the sales of advanced weapons that accompany it, risk fueling China’s ambition of strategic dominance in East Asia. After the “recovery” of Taiwan, or so the scenario goes, China will concentrate on making the South China Sea a Chinese lake. In its path, however, stands the U.S. alliance system and Japan’s refusal to kowtow to Beijing.
Now, having met bedrock in its probes toward the U.S.-Japan alliance, China appears to sense opportunities of outflanking the alliance, in both South Korea and Australia. Geography will constrain South Korea’s willingness to offend Beijing, because after reunification Korea will share a border with China. But America’s offshore allies are more likely to resist China and seek stronger alliances with the United States.
China’s belligerence, like that of its quasi-ally North Korea, has backfired with respect to the U.S.-Japan alliance. By 1996, the alliance was drifting, partly because of tensions over U.S. military bases in Okinawa, but mostly because of the Clinton administration’s perceived tilt toward China. Then China’s saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait helped persuade Japan to upgrade the alliance. Even so, Japan remained reluctant to anger China by implementing new defense guidelines with the U.S. or by agreeing to go beyond joint research into theater missile defenses. But North Korea’s launch of a long-range missile over Japan in 1998 prompted Japan to pass the defense guidelines through the Diet, and sign up to TMD. China’s efforts to manipulate the left wing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party blew back when the Cabinet spokesman allowed that Taiwan was included in the new defense guidelines in the definition of “areas surrounding Japan.”
Elsewhere, China is meeting with more success with its strategy of persuading others to push for a Taiwan “settlement” (i.e. capitulation) on Beijing’s terms. European countries, lured by China’s enormous untapped market, are playing Beijing’s game. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has long professed to see no interest at stake in Taiwan’s continued de facto independence. Seoul abandoned Taiwan in 1992, when it recognized Beijing.
Now Beijing senses new opportunities in South Korea, although it is careful to avoid criticizing that country’s alliance with the U.S. or its rapprochement with Japan. Weakened by recession, South Korea is poorly placed to absorb a collapsing North. Seoul also looks to China as the only country able to restrain North Korea, which gives China immense leverage. That was shown during the South Korean defense minister’s unprecedented visit to Beijing in August 1999, when he said that the disposition of U.S. forces after Korean unification would be decided by unanimous agreement among Northeast Asian countries — thus giving China a veto over U.S. forces in a united Korea. Partly to score points with China, South Korea has declined to participate in TMD research. (Proximity also means that North Korea does not need ballistic missiles in order to threaten the South.)
Farther south, new possibilities beckon China. Beijing has not forgotten that in 1996, Australia was the only country in the region to castigate China for its show of belligerence toward Taiwan. Now China may be encouraged by comments from Australia’s former conservative prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. Fearing that Australia could become embroiled in a war over Taiwan, Fraser has urged regional countries to persuade the U.S. to limit its support for Taiwan. Although he has little influence in Canberra, Fraser’s comments show that the Taiwan issue is a tricky one for Australia. Critics question why Australia should risk entanglement in a war over Taiwan, when America’s North Asian allies are likely to sit on their hands.
But Australia comprehends that alliances incur risks and costs in return for security benefits. That’s why it supported the U.S. in the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In the interests of its own security, Australia could not remain aloof from conflict in either the Taiwan Strait or the Korean Peninsula. But it cannot be expected to issue blank checks in advance. For now, Washington’s best approach is one of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Leave it to China to hint that Australia must choose between Washington and Beijing, since little risk exists that Australia will choose China. Because of Australia’s need for maritime protection, alliance with the dominant maritime power makes excellent sense for Australia, as it does for Japan.
The U.S. need not fret about the Sino-Russian alliance of convenience, which has its roots in Russia’s growing fears of China. As long as Washington continues to ensure that Taiwan can defend itself, China will not be able to take it by force. But China’s threatening behavior, including its buildup of missiles opposite Taiwan, will further strengthen the U.S.’ alliances with offshore countries. Those alliances are based not on fear, but on a congruence of strategic interest and on common values.
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