James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs, in his article A Global Power Shift in the Making, claims a global power realignment is currently underway; from the West to the East. China, with 1/4 of the worlds population within its borders and a fast growing, increasingly decentralized market economy, has the potential to become the worlds largest economic and military power in the coming century. India, with a population exceeding a billion people and an economy growing at sustained rates of 6-8% per year, could outstrip both the US and China, should it maintain that growth for a number of decades. (In related and rather unsettling news, the US and India recently completed another series of ‘Cope India’ war games, wherein the pilots of the Indian Air Force cleaned the proverbial clocks of their USAF counterparts. That raised eyebrows in astonishment all over the world. The Russians loved it.)
This transistion of power centers will not be without difficulties, Hoge says. History, he points out, is replete with examples of large scale wars that result from the inability of nation states to fully grasp, much less manage and cope with these power transistions. War, from Taiwan to North Korea to Kashmir to the Indian-Chinese border, could more than simply derail the process, it might plunge the world into catastrophic warfare.
Taiwan, as we’re all aware, remains the primary flashpoint in US-China relations. China has positioned approximately 500 medium range missles across the Taiwan Straits (Think shock and awe, only much bigger.) as a hedge against any attempt on the part of the Taiwanese to declare themselves independent. Meanwhile, independence is something that Taiwan seems increasingly anxious to declare, despite warnings from both China and the US. Since the time of the Nixon administration, the US has maintained a somewhat ambiguous position regarding Taiwan, supporting its reintegration with the mainland, but simultaneously declaring that any reunification must be both peaceful and mutually agreed upon. President Bush took the almost unprecendented step of publicy admonishing Taiwan against declaring independence during the recent US visit of Chinese president Hu Jintao.
Nonetheless, the US is not quite ready to declare itself out of the game in Asia. In an unprecendented show of naval strength, and possibly as warning to China not to make any assumptions on the US’ willingness to defend Taiwan, the US navy is planning it’s largest naval excercise deployment in the far Pacific ever. Operation Summer Pulse ’04 will see seven (!!) aircraft carrier battle groups deployed off the coast of China. According to the Straits Times article,
Sources in Beijing say China’s reading is that Summer Pulse is being mounted with it as the target audience, a suspicion reinforced by reports that Taiwanese forces are slated to join in the drill. Clearly, given Beijing’s repeated warning that it will use force, as a last resort and whatever the cost, to stop Taiwanese independence, the US feels it needs to send Beijing a message.
So where does that leave us? Is the US coasting towards war? It’s hard to say. History shows war is most likely to occur when one side underestimates the willingness or capability of the other side to fight. Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, even Gulf War I are all examples. But are we underestimating China’s willingness to fight? And if war breaks out between the US and China over Taiwan, will North Korea take the opportunity to launch a full scale offensive on the South? What are the ramifications of three nuclear armed states at war with each other? What would be the likely outcome, both from an immediate military perspective and a long-term strategic perspective? Should the US be doing all it can to avoid war? If so, what?