BULLETIN! U.S. CARRIERS TO SURROUND
CHINA (A STORY, FORTUNATELY, TOO BAD TO BE TRUE)
By Tom Plate
July 21, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- Anyone who knows
anything about China knows that it's not just its current government but its
people, too, who are ultra-protective and ultra-sensitive on the Taiwan
issue. They'd fight – bet on it -- to keep alive the hope of eventual union
with that feisty offshore island that maintains its wary distance from the
mainland. And so, when a sensational story broke recently that the United
States had plans for a massive show of naval power in the Chinese seas, it
was a true blockbuster, perhaps a portent of world war.
After all, wars can start over
serious mutual misperceptions. In 1996, the mainland executed an ill-advised
measure of gunboat and missile diplomacy in an effort to intimidate the
island's voters from electing as its president Chen Shui-bian, whose party’s
most prominent platform plank was formal independence from the mainland. In
response, a pair of U.S. aircraft carrier groups was sent close to China to
help calm the roiling political waters.
But they did not actually stick
their noses into the strait --- the 100-mile wide sea that separates the
mainland from Taiwan. This didn’t happen after then-U.S Ambassador to China
James Sasser in Beijing, greatly alarmed, urgently telephoned President Bill
Clinton to warn that the Pentagon's running a carrier group through the
Taiwan Strait might well trigger a Chinese military response. In the end,
the carrier groups wisely steered away from strait waters, China quieted
down, Chen was elected. And over the next several years China-U.S. relations
Last week, though, it was starting
to look like 1996 all over again. Rumors began to circulate about a mammoth
U.S. military exercise off Taiwan, Operation Summer Pulse '04, that would
involve seven carrier groups, more than half of the U.S. carrier fleet. In
effect, U.S. naval forces would be shaking an enormous stick in Beijing's
face, signaling the folly of military action over Taiwan.
The sensational story was
apparently first listed as fact on a Chinese-language Web site, then
published in at least two newspapers in Asia and two in the United States,
including in the ordinarily cautious Los Angeles Times. These accounts
spawned a predictable firestorm in Asia about new U.S. "gunboat diplomacy"
in various Internet blogs and Web pages.
As well such an allegation should:
China insists on ultimate sovereignty over Taiwan and argues that any
Western encouragement of Taiwan separatism would undermine regional
stability and delay a peaceful solution of the issue. Indeed, this "one
China" policy has been accepted by the United Nations (as well as the United
States and most of the world).
Beijing thus has a point. And so
given this reality, the proper task of modern global diplomacy is to
discourage China from ever attempting to establish sovereignty by force and
to deter Taiwan from acting publicly in such a way that Beijing becomes
convinced that the military option is the mainland's only hope of ever
realizing unification. China's military overlord Jiang Zemin recently said
this needs to be accomplished by 2020, which means (on my reading) that
Beijing is not exactly saying, well, by tomorrow.
As it turns out, the
seven-carriers-to-China story was not only inflammatory, it was also false.
In fact, after the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan returns to port in San Diego early
next month, only two carriers, not seven, will float in Pacific waters: the
U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, according to Capt. John
Singley, top spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, in an
exclusive on-the-record interview.
The false story, whipped into a
frenzy, upset many in the U.S. military perhaps as much as the Chinese. For
one thing, the Pacific Command has been working industriously since the
scary 1996 cross-straits stare-down to get to know its Chinese counterparts
and develop a measure of mutual trust. Then-Pacific Commander Joseph Prueher,
now retired, personally visited China for useful sessions with Chinese
counterparts. His successors continued that policy, though the frequency of
contact has been foolishly cut back by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Second, rumors of a massive U.S.
military buildup (for which America does have the capability) only play into
the hands of China’s hawks in the People’s Liberation Army, who beg Beijing
for more money for more arms, which plays into the hands of Taiwan’s hawks
(same reason), which plays into the hands of anti-China circles in the
United States who want more funding for more weapons – all of which delights
U.S. arms merchants. It is through this kind of whirl-wind of rumor, fear
and innuendo that the vile atmosphere of a vicious, costly and unneeded arms
race in Asia is spawned.
In international relations and
public diplomacy, the news media play a critical role. They can prudently
raise intelligent questions, or rashly raise international temperatures.
They can carefully report the news or puff up a tidbit of sensationalism.
The press owes it to world peace to behave more responsibly and not take its
cues from sensational cyberspace sources. War – or potential war – is
serious business, as Iraq today reminds us daily.