Will Asia follow western example?
The PLA is already one of the biggest militaries in the world, although it has been kept largely away from combat since the 1979 action against Vietnam. Although analysts in the US and in other NATO capitals describe the Taiwan Straits as “among the most dangerous flashpoints in the world”, the reality is that war between Taipei and Beijing is very unlikely. While the ruling KMT (Kuomintang) is very clear that it will not provoke a conflict with China by declaring Taiwan independent, even the opposition DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) has changed significantly over the past four years. Under previous President Chen Shui-bian, the DPP administration constantly spoke of the possibility of declaring Taiwan to be independent, in the expectation that any resulting war with China would bring the US and Japan immediately on the side of Taiwan. This may have been an optimistic estimate. The reality is that both the US as well as the Japanese economies depend for a lot of their resilience on China, and hence war with that country would ruin economic prospects for all three. While the Chinese people have undergone hardship in the past and are therefore in a better position to once again pass through tough times, the Japanese have stoically and with nobility undergone a huge slowdown in growth for the past decade and more. However, the shock waves created by the 2008 financial collapse in the US have made it very unlikely that Washington would risk economic catastrophe by going to war with China.
Given this, the reality is that Taiwan would almost certainly be on its own. History has shown that those who trusted in the goodwill of the NATO powers seldom got rescued. In the 1970s,Taiwan was in a much better position than Pakistan to become a nuclear weapons state. Its economy was larger and its technological base significant. With help from Israeli scientists, a nuclear program was launched by Taipei, especially after 1971,when Richard Nixon abandoned Taiwan in favour of the PRC. However, by the 1980s,consistent and strong pressure from Washington resulted in the program being abandoned. Had Taiwan been in the same league as Israel by possessing a nuclear device and the capacity to deliver it to targets even just 1500 kilometres, the defense environment of the island would have been very different from the present, when Taipei has been reduced to beseeching the US to sell it advanced F-16 fighter jets to help create a defense shield against air attack.
Of course, given the fact that the US needs China’s cooperation in order to get over the present economic crisis, there is thus far no sign that the Obama administration is willing to make the sale. They know that such a step would be seen as a provocation by Beijing Now that it had buckled under to US pressure and abandoned its quest for nuclear weapons, the next opportunity for Taiwan to get security in the event of a conflict with the PRC came in 2001,after 9/11.
The temporary boost in US geopolitical strength that followed the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon created a window that allowed Washington to set up an Asian version of NATO. This would have linked up India, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, Australia, Japan and the US into a military alliance. At that time, Atal Behari Vajpayee was PM of India and John Howard the PM of Australia. Both would have been willing to participate in an Asian NATO.
However, because such a construct would have excluded the Europeans, it was opposed by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, both of whom saw the US as a North American outpost of Europe. The NATO members in Europe also weighed in against an Asian version of NATO, arguing that their own construct was fully capable of keeping the peace anywhere in the world. George W Bush therefore abandoned the plan for an Asia-based regional security system, and instead continued to rely on NATO for such a role. Not surprisingly, the organisation has proved a failure even against a ragtag bunch such as the Taliban. In Iraq, “success” came only when US and other NATO troops withdrew to the barracks. An Asian version of NATO would have served to ensure security for Taiwan, although not to the extent that nuclear weapons could. After all, Kim Jong-II of North Korea knows that it is only his nukes which keep him from going the way of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Kadhafi. The brutal military attack by NATO on two countries that gave up their WMD programmes — Iraq and Libya — has ensured that North Korea, Iran and Syria would never agree to go the conciliatory way Baghdad and Tripoli did.
These days, the NATO powers talk incessantly of the “mass graves” in Iraq. They forget that more than 90% of these were the result not of Saddam Hussein but the genocidal sanctions that they got the UN to enforce on Iraq for twelve years after the reckless and unjustifiable invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Of course, no public discourse in NATO capitals ever brings up the effect of sanctions. In a way, this is similar to the situation in Cambodia, where all the deaths of the civilian population in the 1970s has been laid at the door of Pol Pot.
There is no doubt that the dictator was cruel and a mass murderer, but at least as many Cambodians were killed by the merciless carpet bombing of the US Air Force as by Pol Pot. Naturally, no one in NATO ever brings this fact up. By definition, a NATO bomb cannot kill, it can only heal. By definition, each action of NATO is benign and peaceful, else there may have been at least a reference to the same in the hyperactive International Court of Justice at The Hague. Instead, there is a shameful silence, including about the numerous civilian deaths caused by NATO bombing in Libya, and the thousands of innocents massacred by the thugs who have been armed by NATO While it talks a lot about peace and democracy, the reality is that the first instinct of the NATO powers is to reach for the gun when an inconvenient geopolitical reality emerges to challenge them.
Worst of all, NATO has once again begun to use military might in order to gain commercial advantage, as has become very clear in Iraq and in Libya, where companies based in NATO territories claim special consideration at the point of a bayonet, thereby displacing entities from powers that do not routinely use military force in order to secure commercial advantage. By their resort to force and their greed, the NATO powers are tempting emerging powers to follow their example. What if China, Russia and India threaten to bomb National Transitional Council strongholds in Libya if they are denied petroleum blocks because these are reserved for the NATO powers? What example id NATO setting for Asia? In an era when the economic strength of Asia is rising and that of NATO is coming under strain, this is a question that the alliance will need to ask, before Asian copycats emulate its brutal recourse to force as a first option,
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.