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On Point

China's Boistrous Borders


by Austin Bay

Examine China's long, uneasy border. At the moment, it doesn't matter if Washington sees the endemic "uneasiness" as a "policy opportunity" (diplo-speak for giving the Chinese military regional fits and frustrations). However, Beijing certainly does.

Of course, seeding and stoking conflicts is a sure sign of failed diplomacy -- risky policy for everyone. So don't read the following sketch of China's perimeter as a flowchart for CIA and Green Beret missions in Asia. The United States armed the Aghan resistance to Russia and now we confront Osama bin Laden's "Afghani" terrorists. Spies call that "blowback," where you're torched by the flames of your own operation.

On the other hand, Beijing's belligerent EP-3 antics suggest it's time to remind China's tough-talking generals they live in a tough neighborhood, where apologies are rare. They, too, can be torched by their own fire.

Vietnam: In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a brief but bloody border war. That war told even hard-core Vietnamese cadres that Communist brotherhood was kaput. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Vietnam lacked a major power ally to make the Chinese "colossus to the north" think twice. Hanoi complains of U.S. imperialism, but Asia has experienced millennia of Chinese imperialism. At least with the Americans, you get rock and roll. Beijing's belligerence may spur closer U.S.-Vietnamese strategic cooperation.

South China Sea: Potential petroleum reserves always excite interest. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and even Cambodia claim slices of the seabed. Vietnam and the Philippines have both sparred with Chinese forces in the Spratly Islands. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) already has the outline of an anti-China alliance. Washington might encourage that.

Taiwan: Beijing's military boys have been telling the world the mainland will acquire Taiwan -- preferably by diplomacy, but by force if required. Taiwan's military isn't as crack as it once was. The United States can quickly help Taiwan reverse this deterioration. Taiwan needs Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile missiles and the Navy's Aegis defense system to counter the "missile drizzle" strategy China began to develop in the mid-1990s.

The Koreas: North Korea has been an asset for China, a nuclear-armed midget that rattles Japan and America. North Korea, however, is also dirt poor and starving. South Korea is wealthy, modern and militarily-able. In a crisis, at best the Koreas are question marks for Beijing.

Japan: Old, deep enmities mark the Japanese-Chinese relationship. Beijing once let Washington know it approved of the U.S. Navy vessels berthed in Yokohama. From Beijing's perspective, Washington kept a thumb on Japan. It's time to remind Beijing that the United States and Japan are allies. Japan already operates Aegis destroyers. Japan needs a few more.

Siberia and Mongolia: Such a long, empty border, and Russian military power is ebbing. Yes, Moscow sees China as a market for advanced arms, but Kremlinites know an expansionist China threatens Siberia's treasure chest of natural resources.

Central Asia: Kazakhstan's oil attracts Beijing. Kazakhstan wants to sell oil, but it has no interest in becoming a Chinese protectorate. Kazakhstan and the United States thus have several mutual interests. China has internal troubles in its western provinces, some stoked by Islamic radicals. Over tea in Beijing, a low-on-the-totem-pole U.S. consular official might ask one of his Chinese pals if a calculating Italian like Niccolo Machiavelli would regard aiding Islamic agitation inside China as a policy option.

Tibet: Mao attacked and occupied Tibet. (Kazakhstan and Mongolia, take note.) Mao claimed Tibet as a "lost Chinese province." The Tibetans still resist Han Chinese domination. For Beijing, the Dalai Lama remains a diplomatic thorn. The Himalayas are primo terrain for European mountaineers -- and for embittered ethnic guerrillas.

India: Remember the 1962 Sino-Indian War? The Chinese quietly acclimated an assault force, preparing infantry for high-altitude operations, then conducted a savvy offensive that punished the Indian Army. Well, India remembers. India is now a nuclear power. The Indian military is modernizing. India still claims border areas now occupied by China. Would New Delhi be interested in U.S. troop helicopters, choppers with the high-altitude engine packages?

Diplomacy takes time, but talk beats bullets, hands down. Congress will revisit China's Normal Trade Relations status this summer. Economic penalties may lead Beijing to moderate its hard line. However, if PLA leaders continue to behave like punk military machos, they need to know their tough talk may lead some unimpressed Americans back to the bookshelf, to bone up on Machiavelli and examine Asia's map.

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