For the past few months I've been hearing from a bevy of China experts about how subtle and brilliant Beijing's diplomacy has become in recent years. Sophisticated and confident, Chinese diplomats have been running rings around the United States, winning friends and influencing people throughout East Asia and the world. So I can only marvel at China's latest diplomatic gambits, whose brilliance and sophistication must be so subtle as not to be susceptible to normal modes of analysis.
First, China's leaders this week introduced a draft "Anti-Secession Law" in the People's Congress that threatens military action against Taiwan. An official summary of the legislation declares that "in the event that the 'Taiwan independence' forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan's secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, that [the] state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity." This deliberately vague threat would seem to suggest that China might attack Taiwan in the event that (a) Taiwan declares independence, (b) seems to be about to declare independence, (c) seems to be thinking about possibly declaring independence some time in the future or (d) is not thinking about independence at all but merely refuses to be absorbed by China in a timely manner.
What's striking about this bellicose "legislation" is not only the content but the timing. It comes on the heels of an election in Taiwan in which pro-independence forces are widely assumed to have suffered a bit of a setback and when Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, seems intent on improving the climate of cross-strait relations. He recently announced publicly that he would "not declare independence," would not seek an amendment to the constitution to change Taiwan's status and would not "promote a referendum to change the status quo in regards to the issues of independence or unification." Perhaps Beijing thinks it is wise to follow this softening of the Taiwanese position with a renewed round of threats and intimidation, though if history is any guide, such intimidation will produce the opposite effect in Taiwan.
The threat also comes as some of China's neighbors, notably Japan and, more quietly, Australia, are evincing some nervousness about China's growing power and muscle-flexing. Japan has recently sought to broaden the scope of its security ties with the United States and for the first time has explicitly discussed joint U.S.-Japanese cooperation in the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. What better way for China to soothe Japanese nervousness than to appear even more belligerent?
But Chinese subtlety doesn't end there. According to a report this week in The Australian, Chinese officials have recently demanded that the Australian government "review" its 50-year-old treaty with the United States. Australia "needs to be careful," Beijing Foreign Ministry official He Yafei reportedly warned, lest it wind up in a confrontation with China as part of its treaty obligations to the United States. Now, anyone who knows the Australian character knows that this kind of blunt "warning" and demand for a loosening of security ties with the United States is precisely the wrong tack to take if you really hope to influence Australian policy. So the Chinese must be operating on an entirely different plane of diplomatic sophistication.
In fact, of course, there is nothing at all subtle about Chinese "diplomacy." The Chinese are indeed flexing their muscles, wielding their increasing economic and military clout to demand greater obedience from their neighbors. There is nothing surprising in this. The only surprise is the way the world, including the United States, has in recent years tried to ignore China's growing belligerence, mesmerized by its economic performance and dreaming of a reformed, postmodern China that can be "integrated" into the global liberal economic order. Some American analysts have even been calling for the erection of new collective security structures in East Asia that would include China.
But that rather misses the point. New security structures are needed in East Asia, but they should involve America's democratic allies, all of whom now share an increasing fear of a China whose rise may or may not be entirely peaceful. Since Sept. 11, 2001, a United States understandably consumed with the terrorist threat has done less than it might have to reassure those allies that America's power and its will to deter remain undiminished in East Asia. This may have helped convince the Chinese that bullying can work.
It is possible that China hopes to get what it wants by bullying alone and that the Chinese leadership has no real intention of making good on its threats. It is also possible, however, that the Chinese are laying the groundwork for an eventual military assault on Taiwan. Who knows? Either way it would be foolish and dangerous to ignore Chinese threats. The best way to avoid war in the Taiwan Strait is to make clear that the United States will abide by its defense commitments, together with its Australian and Japanese allies. Let's not be too subtle.
Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.