6 April 2010

A New Cold War between China and the US - Dr. Baris Adibelli

With the American government fighting a big economic crisis, the Obama administration decided to go through with a 6.5 billion dollar weapons sale including attack helicopters and rockets to be sold to Taiwan, a package initially presented to Congress by the Bush administration in 2008. The package offered to congress by the Bush administration on October 3, 2008 included sales of 30 Apache helicopters, 30 Patriot rockets and 32 Harpoon rockets fired from submarines. This package consists of 6 separate weapons deals. These are: 330 Patriot-3 air defense systems worth 3.1 billion dollars; 30 AH-64D Block III Apache Longbow attack helicopters worth 2.532 billion dollars; 32 UGM 84L harpoon Block II rockets fired from submarines worth 200 million dollars; 2 UTM-84L Harpoon Block II rockets, 182 Javelin loaded rockets and 20 Javelin launch command control units worth 47 million dollars, the modernization of 4 E-2T aircraft worth 250 million dollars, and finally, 334 million dollars worth of modernization for F-E/F, C-130H, F-16A/B and IDF war plane communication equipment and radars, as well as logistic support for the repair of other parts. Moreover, the Taiwanese have been lobbying since 2008 for 60 Black Hawk helicopters left out of the package and joint production of diesel submarines, and trying to convince the US to sell them 60 F-16 C/D war planes.

Security Dilemma

The problem of Taiwan is the most important problem that China and the US inherited from the Cold War. War almost broke out three times between China and US over Taiwan. In 1950s General Douglas Mac Arthur emphasized Taiwan’s geopolitical importance in the Asian Pacific region for US by calling it the unsinkable aircraft carrier. Throughout the Cold War, Taiwan was a geostrategic advantage for the US, The Taiwanese Straits under Taiwan’s control is a crucial sea route for Japan and South Korea. These straits are the raw material and energy trade route for both countries. Although the US signed three important documents that state that Taiwan is part of China, it did not give up on arming Taiwan against China. Weapons sales to Taiwan have always been a problem in terms of Chinese-American relations. In 1982 the Reagan administration brought up weapon sales to Taiwan and disrupted Chinese-American relations. Similarly, in 1992 the Bush administration brought up selling 16 aircraft to Taiwan, causing further serious harm to Chinese-American relations.

In order to sell weapons to Taiwan, the US publishes annual intelligence reports and claims that China is involved in certain military activities against Taiwan. These reports usually conclude that China will attack Taiwan in about a year’s time. The US’s psychological propaganda has effect immediately and Taiwan buys billions of dollars worth of weapons from the US every year. The Chinese however, state that US reports do not reflect reality and emphasize that US is fooling Taiwan into buying weapons using a wily salesman’s mentality. In fact, while previous Pentagon reports claim that the number of ballistic rockets sent to Taiwan was 350, and then 750-800, today the number is over 1000. More than a 1000 ballistic rockets is not a rational strategy for either defense or attack, against a 36 thousand km2 island 160 km of the Chinese coast because China does not want to erase Taiwan of the map but wants to reunite it instead. These amounts show that the US convinces Taiwan to purchase weapons with exaggerated numbers. Since Taiwan buys weapons, China increases armament against Taiwan similarly. The situation where country A sees that country B is in arming, is threatened and begins to arm itself, too, causing country A to further increase its weapons is called a security dilemma in the discipline if international relations. Country B responds with more armament and situation continues like this. This is like the armament contest between China and Taiwan. In the end, international arms dealers are the ones that benefit.

The Chill in Taiwanese-American Relations Is Coming to an End

In his declaration, Taiwan’s President Ma interpreted the US government’s approval of the weapon sales as the end of a cold period that has lasted for the last eight years. The US, on the other hand, defended the legality of the weapon sales and stated that they are compatible with the Taiwanese relations law ratified by Congress in 1979 and derive their legitimacy from this law. As you may remember, when the US cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Congress opposed this step and emphasized that, because of the principle of loyalty to agreements and since Taiwan was a long term ally against communism, the White House should maintain certain previously established relations. Congress was insistent on this and made the Carter administration accept the Taiwanese Relations Law. With this law, a new diplomatic relations mechanism called the Taiwanese model was born. Ma’s support for weapon sales also put this peaceful atmosphere at risk.

Actually, this sale was proposed by the US in 2001. However, Taiwan’s Nationalist Party’s MPs, the opposition at the time, opposed this purchase because it was very expensive, and they blocked the package’s passage in Parliament. The US shelved the sale. In addition to the costs, the reason the nationalists opposed such a sensitive issue was that the acquisition was interpreted as military support for the independence arguments of the Democratic Progress Party then in power. The nationalists, on the other hand, did not want to be independent from China. However, soon afterwards Taiwan approved the sale, but the US did not put it on the table in Congress for a while. This is because China played a big role in the diplomatic process of removing nuclear weapons from North Korea, and Washington did not bring up the arms sales in order not to provoke China and sabotage this diplomatic process.

China’s Reaction

As soon as the news about the arms sales reached China, there was very harsh reaction at the official level. A spokesperson of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs stated that the arms sales constitute a risk for Chinese national security, that they will harm the military relations between China and the US that have been developing for years and that they put Beijing-Washington military relations at risk. China protested the weapons sale and announced that they cancelled some military and diplomatic meetings with the US. China already considers Taiwan's declaration of independence as a reason for war (casus belli). While China has such a policy, Washington’s insistence on arming Taiwan shows that the US is seriously gambling.

In Taiwan, the election of the pacifically minded leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), Ma, to the Taiwanese presidency in March 2008 began a new period of peace between China and Taiwan. Traditionally, the Nationalists wanted to unite with China. The Democratic Progressive Party, on the other hand, advocates Taiwan's independence. With nationalists coming to power there were numerous protocol visits from Taiwan to China. Moreover, commercial flights started between China and Taiwan. Tourism contracts were signed, and Taiwan invited Chinese entrepreneurs, while China allowed Taiwan to invest in China. Therefore, the reason for Ma’s recent support for this weapons deal in this context is still being discussed in Beijing. In fact, Taiwan's Chinese population criticized Tibet and the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan uprisings and said that Tibet had been Chinese territory for centuries. Taiwanese nationalists stated that Tibet's separation from China is unthinkable and demonstrated an even more nationalist stance than China itself.

The Reasons for the Arms Sale

There are two important factors behind the strategy adopted by the US towards Taiwan. First, the most important export item for the US, which is in a big economic crisis, is weapons. The arms industry is the driving force of the American economy. Looking at the recent US history, the first and second world wars, the Vietnam war and the Gulf war all served the weapons industry. Whenever the American economy slows down, the war economy gets it back on its feet. The US economy is being dragged to collapse due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in order to avoid this collapse it has been looking for a chance to start a war against Iran for the last two years. Apart from Iran’s strategic position, the US’s main purpose is to revitalize its weapons industry with a regional war and to obtain necessary finances for the American economy.

Another reason is completely geostrategic. The fact that the Pacific-Indian ocean line, which the US has considered the most important security parameter since the Cold War, is falling under Chinese control is another source of concern for the US. The Pentagon thinks of China as one leg of the scissors that will narrow the gap from Hormuz Straits towards the Pacific region and push US out of the region by uniting with the other leg Russia in the Pacific region. In fact, Russia has indicated that it wants to become a determining military power in the Pacific by conducting nuclear rocket drills in the Far East, drills that it did not even hold during the Soviet period. It did not please Washington, and especially Obama and his team, that China not only became dominant in Asian Pacific, but also gained more influence in Eurasia. The Bush administration was not very interested in Eurasia. Its main concern was the Middle East, with Israel’s security in the center. However, almost for a century Eurasia has been the most important target for the US, and Halford John Mackinder was the one who pointed to Eurasia as the primary geostrategic target. Mackinder emphasized that the way to rule the world was mainly through Eurasia then under Soviet control.

The US’s New Policy of Containment

This concept, which originally reflected the spirit of the Cold War was revived by Zbigniev Brzezinski in the post-Cold War period. Zbigniev Brzezinski clearly explained the importance of Eurasia for the US in his book, The Grand Chessboard. According to Brzezinski, approximately 75% of the world population lives in Eurasia, and the majority of economic initiatives and underground resources are located there. Eurasia has 60% of the world’s gross domestic product and 3/4 of all known energy resources. All the officially acknowledged nuclear powers accept one and secret nuclear powers are in Eurasia. It is the biggest continent on earth and is a geopolitical axis. A power that dominates Eurasia can control two of the three most advanced and economically productive regions in the world. The last five centuries’ world events have been determined by Eurasian peoples and powers that fight each other for regional hegemony and global power. Today, a non-Eurasian power is leading Eurasia, and American global leadership depends on how long and with what effectiveness it will sustain its hegemony in Eurasia. Either by America’s withdrawal or by the sudden emergence of a successful competitor, the rapid loss of his hegemony will cause deep international instability. After explaining the reasons for the importance of Eurasia, Brzezinski goes on to warn the US in particular. He states that a potential rival to America might come out of the most important playing field on earth, Eurasia. According to Brzezinski, the US had to control the surrounding countries. The Clinton administration tried to follow these predictions for a while but the conjuncture did not fully allow it.

As soon as he took up his position Obama took his mentor Brzezinski’s road map off the shelf, and following his advice to control the surroundings, he set out to improve relations with Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan and Turkey. In this context, the US reviewed the issue of Taiwan and rather than seeking to separate it from China, saw it as part of the strategy of distracting China and pushing it away from Eurasia and Africa by locking it in the region. With this logic, the more China can be kept busy here, the more new regional power centers such as Japan and India can develop. Moreover, without China in Eurasia, Russia can be defeated more easily. Meanwhile, the US’s European allies will replace China in Africa. The US’s Taiwan strategy must be evaluated throughly. Evaluating it narrowly in terms of blocking Chinese economic power would lack foresight. The most important fact behind the Bush administrations’s attempt to form an organization similar to SEATO in the Asian Pacific is the concern that a growing China will naturally demand an expansion area. This act is more visible with an analysis in terms of geopolitics. This concern is what leads to the frequent comparisons in the West between today’s China and Nazi Germany or the Japanese empire.

McKinder’s prediction not only determined the horizons of American international policy, but China also took lessons from it. China skillfully maneuvered to identify the Asian Pacific region as an adjacent region to Eurasia, while the US threatened these independently and separately. In China’s approach the two regions are seen as an inseparable whole in terms of politics, economics and military, and Eurasia and Asian Pacific complement each other. This is perhaps Washington's biggest strategic mistake. Washington continues to evaluate its position in especially the Asian Pacific with Cold War parameters and ignores the evolution and transformation of its regional allies such as Japan. Contrary to assumptions, an Asian Pacific strategy that is not adapted to the existing conditions will entail a heavy burden and give strategic priority to China. What lies beneath Obama’s new Afghanistan oriented policy vision that he put forward as soon as he took office is actually the American strategists’ understanding that the new containment strategy against China cannot be conducted merely from the Pacific region.


In conclusion, in the year since Obama took office with big hopes, he took an unexpected step and initiated a process that will undermine peace and stability in the Asian Pacific. The long quiet region shifted to a tense posture with Obama’s announcement of the decision to sell weapons to Taiwan. In response to this announcement China made harsh statements and threats. Planting new seeds of instability instead of resolving the regional instability caused by the chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, gives the impression that Obama administration is pushing the US towards a more tangled process. As he is finishing the first year of his presidency, which he won with the slogan of change, Obama disappointed his domestic and foreign policy supporters and began 2010 with a major image change. Although he received the majority of the votes as a result of the American people’s reaction against the Bush administration, he failed to fulfill his promises to have a different profile in every field and began to follow Bush’s footsteps one year later. Without a doubt the most important item on Obama’s agenda at the beginning of his term was the global economic crisis. Failing to overcome the crisis with its decisions, the Obama administration was not very successful with its policies against Russia and China, which recently resumed their roles as traditional rivals of America. He could not find a solution for the rapidly decreasing global credibility of the US. The traditional American international policy strategy of creating a crisis if you cannot find a solution came into play. Obama is trying to distract the American and global public by starting certain regional crises. While he expects to gain more support with the profile of a hawkish president, provoking China, which had accepted the principle of peaceful development as a model, and causing it to follow more aggressive policies constitute more than anything else the greatest threat to US global interests.

With Hu Jintao officially becoming the president of China in 2003, an important process of change in Chinese international policy was started, and Hu Jintao formulated this change as the principle of zero problems with neighbors. In this context, initially China made diplomatic attempts to resolve old problems or misunderstandings with its neighbors. Similarly, being very sensitive about Taiwan, China lifted this sensitivity to another level in 2006, and with the Combat Against Separatism Law it announced that any step towards independence by Taiwan would be considered a casus belli (reason for war). Although this was in conflict with the principle of zero problems with neighbors, China sees the problem of Taiwan as a domestic issue rather than an international policy issue and evaluates Taiwan as part of the territorial unity of China, calling this One China Policy. However, due to its long term UN representation, Taiwan has drawn international attention. It is hard for China to exclude Taiwan from its international policy because Taiwan has been dealing with Chinese foreign policy for a long time. Thus, Chinese foreign policy is involved in Taiwan's status, and the international community is discussing Taiwan's status on a legitimate platform. No doubt China’s definition of Taiwan's status is based on three documents they signed with the US in the past. China always refers to these documents for Taiwan. However, there is another document which determines the US view of Taiwan, and it legitimizes all steps taken by the US. This documents is the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979.

As long as the US insists on this act and legitimizes everything with this act, China might enforce its right to use force against Taiwan according to the 2006 Combat Against Separatism Law. No doubt, the continuation of the US containment policy against China will lead China to adapt a more destructive policy, especially regarding North Korea and Iran. The Obama administration’s indirect propaganda claiming that China is responsible for recent problems in Iran and the new process started with Taiwan raises the question: Is the US getting revenge for Chinas support of Iran? It seems that difficult days are ahead for the Asian Pacific.

*For further information on Taiwan see Baris Adibelli, Cin Dis Politikasinda Tayvan Sorunu (The Taiwan Issue in Chinese Foreign Policy), IQ Yayinevi, Istanbul, 2006.

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