Saturday, January 30, 2010

'Arming the Dragon: U.S. Security Ties with the People’s Republic of China'

Today's news reports about controversial arms sales to Taiwan from the United States -- resulting in a negative reaction from China -- sent me looking for this book review, which appeared originally in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, March 2, 1988.

Let’s Not Spite Our Allies to Appease Beijing
Arming the Dragon: U.S. Security Ties with the People’s Republic of China, by A. James Gregor, Ethics and Public Public Center, Washington, D.C., $7.95, paperback, 111 pp.

American sailors in the Persian Gulf today are in danger, partly because of the sale of Silkworm missiles from the People’s Republic of China to Iran. The Silkworms, like our Stinger missiles, are devastatingly accurate weapons for destroying ships — including the oil tankers and merchant ships that belong to countries that have not taken sides in the war between Iraq and Iran. There is broad agreement that no outsiders should sell such modern weapons to either Iraq or Iran. Yet China continues to sell the Silkworms.

This brings home to us in a sharp and timely fashion why the United States should be wary of pursuing closer military ties to China. The same point is made in a scholarly way in the new book Arming the Dragon: U.S. Security Ties with the People’s Republic of China by Prof. A. James Gregor of the University of California at Berkeley.

His argument is fairly straightforward: Essentially, the strategy seems simple enough — the most significant military and political threat to U.S. interests in the Western Pacific comes from the Soviet Union; the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a clear adversary of the Soviet Union; this creates a convergence of U.S. and Chinese interests in the region; therefore, the United States should provide military assistance to the Chinese.

Gregor shows persuasively that this syllogism of appealing simplicity has a very real shortcoming: it quite likely is wrong. Instead of syllogistic simplicity, the triangular political and military relationship between the United States, China, and the Soviet Union in the Western Pacific is far more complex than some of our strategic thinkers seem willing to acknowledge. Some military planners seem to take a perverse glee in the idea of arming China as a way to “get” the Soviet Union, a glee that is glaringly shortsighted.

In Arming the Dragon, Gregor notes that the existence of Communist China alone complicates Soviet strategic planning. Half a million Soviet troops are tied down at the Chinese border. Were there no threat from China, those troops would be free to make mischief in Western Europe, Southeast Asia, or elsewhere in the world. It does not follow, argues Gregor, that the United States should sell arms or give military aid to Beijing, particularly since U.S. allies in the region believe China is a greater threat to them than the Soviet Union is.

It is clear that as long as Moscow and Beijing are at odds with each other, there is little chance that the Soviet border forces will be freed to unbalance the delicate equilibrium between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Europe. Thus, the United States should pursue political, economic and cultural rapprochement with China. But does it mean that closer military ties should be sought as well?

No, not at all. The selling of arms to the PRC, the provision of military technology, and the training of members of the People’s Liberation Army in the West are misguided efforts. Policies such as these generate suspicion and ill will among our allies in the Western Pacific — particularly the Republic of China on Taiwan, but also Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan. When a tiny nation like Singapore, for instance, feels that the PRC threatens it more than the Soviet Union, and that the United States tilts toward the PRC, it may be more inclined to seek Soviet support or at least to resist Soviet overtures less forcefully.

Our friends in the Western Pacific — particularly the Republic of China on Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, and Japan deserve to have their needs and perceptions treated with respect in Washington. A cavalier attitude that places Beijing’s desires above those of our other, more reliable friends and allies will, in the long run, work against U.S. interests. The Silkworm missiles provide just one such example. With a broader perspective, Gregor’s book teaches that lesson quite clearly.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based foreign policy analyst and writer.

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