International Affairs Forum: In March, China announced plans to increase military spending by 18% this year. What do you make of China’s military build-up, and is it anything its neighbors, or indeed the United States, needs to be worried about?
Richard C. Bush: The budget increase in March is consistent with the long term trend. It is designed, in part, to make up for the long term neglect of the People's Liberation Army in terms of long term resource allocation. It reflects a significant reorientation of their strategic outlook, away from the Eurasian interior, on which they spent resources for a couple of decades, and towards the western Pacific. All of that is terribly expensive. They have to spend a lot on payroll and military education in order to keep people in the military, because there a lot of other attractive opportunities. So, in that sense, this spending should not be that alarming.
Another possible explanation for the increase is that some items that may have been off-budget are gradually being put on-budget, so if there’s greater transparency, that’s a good thing as well. But there are a couple of areas where we shouldn't be so complacent. Number one is that the primary reason for China's acquisition of power projection capability, which is one of the purposes of this spending, is to deter what China perecived as a move towards indpendence by Taiwan. To some extent this has been a misperception on China's part, or an over reaction to what has been going on in Taiwan.
There may well be good news in that the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan president, and his more moderate policies toward the mainland, may allow China to become more relaxed about Taiwan trends, and therefore spend less on capabilities that were designed for a Taiwan contingency. Whether they do so is another question, but one can hope that political change on Taiwan will lead to a reduction, to some extent, of China's military build up.
But it is unlikely to lead to a total reduction, because the Chinese have made clear that Taiwan is not the only reason they were acquiring power projection capability. They see the need to expand their strategic space into the western Pacific to create a strategic buffer. And that, sooner or later, could bump up against the deployments of Japan and the United States, unless political steps are taken by all concerned to draw the right rules of the road. That is being done to some extent, but it is going to take great care on the part of all concerned, and leadership on the part of those who guide the future course of China, the United States and Japan to ensure that military planners in their respective countries don't just operate on autopilot and create a dynamic of defense spending and acquisitions that leads to a downward spiral.
IA-Forum: How much of a shift in policy do you expect with Ma’s election?
Mr. Bush: It’s very much a work in progress. Beijing is certainly happy to see the end of the Chen Shui-bian era, because they regarded him as a trouble maker and they had to devote a lot of time and effort to blocking his initiatives, which they saw as a challenge.
They have put forward a number of ideas for greater cooperation and stabilizing the situation in the Taiwan Strait. They will want to be certain that Ma's long term intentions are compatible with their own. So I expect there to be signaling between the two sides, starting with Ma's inauguration on May 20th. And actually it's already begun a process of mutual reassurance that can pave the way for a stabilization of cross-straits relations. But the situation is very complicated, and there are a lot of ways in which a legacy of mistrust could undermine this positive process. There are ways in which some substantive issues could get in the way and block progress. We'll have to see, as the process is just beginning.
IA-Forum: Taiwan seems to be caught in a kind of limbo. It’s obviously not an independent state, but has a great deal of autonomy. Can this realistically go on indefinitely?
Mr. Bush: This is a very good question. This state of limbo, as you have called it, has gone on in various forms for almost 60 years now, since the point at which the leader of China's Nationalist Party, Chiang Kai-shek, and his army moved to Taiwan after the end of the Chinese civil war.
The nature of the limbo has changed. It can go on for some period of time because there are a couple of factors that work in favor of its continuation. One is the economic interdependence that exists, and is deepening between the two sides of the Strait. A lot of Taiwan companies do fairly well because of the investment opportunities in China. They are not doing quite as well as they were doing before and are having to diversify. But China remains an important place for their business activities. Second, there’s also a lot of human and social contact that goes on. Third, it appears that the strong Taiwanese nationalism that has existed for the last 15 or 20 years is maybe abating somewhat, and that younger generations are maybe more pragmatic about China. It may also be that on the Chinese beside there is a better understanding of Taiwan, and a greater willingness to be patient about the future. There is also, I think, a realization that the obstacles to resolving the dispute will take time and creativity. And so an environment in which the mutual fear of the last 15 years is reduced, in which the situation is stabilized, is a better environment for the creative addressing of those issues than what we have had before.
IA-Forum: You mentioned the idea of Taiwanese nationalism there. On the Chinese side, the Olympic torch relay has attracted nationalistic protests, sometimes very aggressive ones, by Chinese students. How concerned are you about the nationalism that has been on display?
Mr. Bush: I think the nationalism we see on the street is different from the views that are expressed within the elites. There is a similarity – within the elite there is skepticism about the West, there's a strong sense of national pride – but there is not the emotionalism and almost xenophobia that you see in the mass nationalism.
The mass nationalism is a problem, because it’s so emotional. It’s a problem for the regime, because there is always a fear on the part of the regime that the strong feelings which began as anger against the United States, or Japan, or France and so on, may get turned against the regime, which the crowd feels is not tough enough against whichever country is the target of the moment. But the leaders of the regime need to be more balanced and calculating in their approach to the outside world, and toward the countries that are most important to China. Those countries that they feel are causing China problems, or who are not demonstrating sufficient respect to China, are also the countries on which China relies for its economic growth. They are therefore the very countries that China relies on for its political stability, because it’s that economic growth that keeps people employed. So for the elites, and the regime, it is complicated.
One thing I'd note is that the regime itself is responsible to some extent for the more emotional nationalism that we see on the part of the public. The regime helped foster it after the Tiananmen Incident, because it needed to find some other basis of legitimacy after putting down the demonstrations at that time in such a bloody fashion. This hard-edged nationalism was particularly promoted vis-à-vis Japan, but not enough is being done by China's leaders to educate the public on how China must work within the international system and get over the resentment it has.
Furthermore, the regime is not doing enough to educate the public on how the activities of western NGOs, who are criticizing China about Tibet, or Darfur, or climate change, are not the pawns of Western governments, or the West writ large. There's a tendency on the part of the Chinese to conflate all of these in some sort of paranoid narrative. Sooner or later there needs to be a more discriminating understanding of what is going on here.
IA-Forum: How would you rate the current U.S. administration’s approach to East Asia, and is there anything you’d like to see the next president do differently?
Mr. Bush: A brief scorecard would be: On China and Taiwan, I think President Bush came out in the right place after starting in a slightly idiosyncratic direction; on North Korea, they moved in a fairly unilateral direction that encouraged North Korea to become a nuclear power. Around 2005-06, they finally got back on track in terms of negotiating directly with North Korea. The process that now exists is a good one, but whether North Korea will indeed give up its nuclear weapons as everybody hopes is a question that is yet to be answered. Nonetheless, a process that is designed to give North Korea every incentive to do so is well in place.
The relationship with Japan has been strengthened by and large, though there are now tensions over our divergent approaches to North Korea, which is too bad; the approach to South East Asia tended to be a single issue approach after 9/11 - it was focused a lot on counter terrorism, and that’s too bad.
Finally, we were a little slow to recognize the strong interest and activity in support of East Asian regionalism and a regional architecture. If there’s one thing that the next administration should do, it is to get more actively engaged in that. The second thing is to be more actively involved generally in the life of the region, to show up at important meetings and so on. That is hard to do when you are fighting a couple of wars in another part of the world, but Asians take presence very seriously. But with respect to China, with respect to Korea, the basic approach is sound.
Richard C. Bush is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of "A War Like No Other: The Truth About China's Challenge to America," "Untying the Knot: Making Peace in the Taiwan Strait" , and "At Cross Purposes: U.S.-Taiwan Relations Since 1942."
All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2002 - 2022