A charm offensive utterly without charm
Between a Chinese bid for an American oil company and Rumsfeld's anti-ballistic missile system, the US policy on China is a bit mixed up
Los Angeles --- Watch out, my fellow Americans, the Chinese oil-saboteurs may be coming. Hold on to your derricks!
Western newspapers are reporting that the giant China National Offshore Oil Corporation may make a bid to acquire the US oil group Unocal. If the effort is successful (investors’ note: the US oil giant Chevron may have a lock on the deal), can we Americans look forward to gas prices posted in both yuan (the Chinese currency -- presumably devalued!) and American dollars? Will Chinese fast-food be available at the dinky retail islands that in the States generally peddle bad-for-your-health snacks and caloric fruit drinks? Is yuan-rich China proposing to buy up America as not long ago we feared the yen-rich Japan was doing? Remember when Tokyo started buying everything in America from famous golf courses to Rockefeller Center?
This Chinese take-over bid for an American oil company will be deemed serious when some US politician gets up on his high horse and denounces the Chinese-ization of America. A good candidate for the job, I suggest, is Charles E. Schumer, the senator from New York. He’s bright, obnoxious in the New York City sense, as tough and unforgiving as a New York subway and constantly complains about Chinese exports and their over-valued currency. If I were one of the boys in Beijing, I would more worry about Chuck Schumer’s demagogic tongue than Donald Rumsfeld’s anti-ballistic missile system. The former, to the extent it can rally American public opinion against China, could really sting. The latter, expensive though it would be, may not ever actually work.
In the latter connection, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s anti-China rhetoric is getting a bit tiresome. One is of course enormously sympathetic to the Pentagon’s desire to puff up potential adversaries in order to bulk up its defense budget. In Singapore, though, Rummy launched a few verbal missiles China’s way that intellectually missed their targets by a mile but emotionally shook up everyone in the neighborhood.
He charged that Beijing’s military buildup was a threat to all of Asia. That came as news to much of Asia, which (rightly or wrongly) generally fears potential Japanese aggression more than a Chinese one. (This is called post WWII traumatic stress syndrome.) Rumsfeld actually said: "Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: Why this growing investment?"
One doesn’t ordinarily think of the top dogs in Beijing as having the world’s greatest sense of humor, but this comment must have tickled them pink. The greatest potential military threat to China, Mr. Secretary of Defense, is in fact the United States. In addition to our superior hardware, Beijing may just possibly have taken note of our penchant for invading countries in the absence of United Nations or international authorization. This makes us -- by any reasonable definition -- a potential and potent threat.
By contrast, China is no serious military threat to the United States now or in the immediate future. Its buildup is inspired, designed and configured with but one objective in mind: Taiwan. It is determined to have that lovely, industrious and in many respects brilliant offshore island brought into the eventual overall embrace of Mother China -- as has been the case with Macau and Hong Kong.
To this end, the United States only plays into the hands of those militarists in China who wanted to blow even more yuan on their own arms-buildup when Washington and Tokyo provocatively and pointedly include Taiwan in their sphere of strategic interests, as a recent joint communiqué so stated.
Reading Rumsfeld’s speech makes one doubt whether the current administration really does have its Asia act together. President George Bush, for example, has been publicly as well as privately pushing the Hu Jintao government to collar Pyongyang and yank them back to the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea.
This is a worthy goal, actually, and China’s effort could indeed prove pivotal. But if you are asking Beijing to in effect club the North Korean seal over the head and drag it to the bargaining table, why publicly insinuate that China is a threat to all of Asia and Taiwan is not an internal matter between Taipei and Beijing (which tensions, to be sure, must be settled peacefully)?
There are only two explanations. One is that Washington has developed a hilariously unique definition of "charm offensive." The other possibility is that half of this administration (i.e., the Washington/Pentagon/national-security apparatus half) does not really want a negotiated settlement of the North Korea issue (because with such an agreement the argument for an Asia-based anti-ballistic missile system would be weakened) and prefers to paint China as an antagonist rather than as a sometimes parallel partner.
We know that Rumsfeld is not dumb -- he is anything but. But by the logic of his Singapore speech, the Pentagon should be prepared to blow up any of those Unocal tankers China may purchase. This sure looks like oily internal subversion, doesn’t it?
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Tom Plate is a professor of Communication and Policy Studies at UCLA. He is a syndicated columnist whose work appears in Mainichi Shimbun in Japan, The Japan Times, The China Times in Taiwan, The Seattle Times, The San Diego Business Journal, The Korea Times in Seoul and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. The author of five books, he has worked has worked as an editor and writer at several major publications including TIME and the Los Angeles Times. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003. He is now founder and director of UCLA's Media Center.
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A Chinese translation of this article is available as a PDF file.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 6/8/2005