The Washington Times
April 4, 2001
By Alan W. Dowd

Playing "bumper cars in the air" to capture a U.S. Navy surveillance plane, China´s dictators have scored another propaganda victory at home. However, by detaining the 24-man crew incommunicado for 48 hours, barring U.S. diplomats from visiting the American hostages and rummaging through the plane, Beijing may be losing points and supporters where it counts--in Washington.

The "trade uber alles" caucus promised us that Permanent Normal Trade Relations would reform Beijing and make such messy diplomatic and military disputes a relic of the 20th century.

But just as a tiger can´t change his stripes, a military dictatorship cannot change its behavior. Some of us knew that even before this latest incident, which occurred more than 35 miles outside China´s territorial waters. Others are just being reminded of it. But this chilling reminder of how far apart China and America remain couldn´t come at a better time.

A potpourri of anti-China legislation is simmering in Congress, addressing everything from China´s bid to host the Olympics to Taiwan´s bid for ballistic-missile defenses. And since ramming unarmed U.S. aircraft and humiliating U.S. diplomats is not the best way to get in the good graces of Congress, some of that legislation is bound to boil over.

Taiwan promises to benefit most from Beijing´s blunder above the South China Sea. Taiwan has weathered the mainland´s bullying for decades, and Taipei will no doubt have a more receptive ear in Washington in the wake of China´s spy plane standoff.

Not only is Taiwan pressing for World Trade Organization membership, but the Taiwanese military has been waiting for Washington to give it the green light on a range of new weapons purchases. Topping Taiwan´s wish list is a small fleet of warships equipped with sophisticated anti-missile systems that could give the tiny island a fighting chance against Beijing´s rocket-laden ships and coastlines. Ironically, Taiwan is also requesting P-3 Orion anti-submarine planes similar to the EP-3 that China forced into a crash landing.

But Taiwan needed the new hardware and America needed a new China policy long before China´s cloned MiG-21 slammed into the American EP-3. China is in the midst of the greatest military buildup on earth. In fact, just last month, China announced a staggering 17.7 percent increase in military spending. This follows a 314 percent increase over the last decade.

The crippled and compromised hulk of the U.S. plane sitting on Hainan island gives us a glimpse of what China wants to do with this new military--intimidate its neighbors in the short-term and challenge America in the long-term.

As a Pentagon report for Congress warned last year, "China´s resolve to employ military force should not be discounted." And history shows why:

In the 1950s, China seized Tibet, invaded Korea and bombed the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu. In the 1960s, it turned west, attacking India, and north, invading the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, China gobbled up the Paracel Islands and invaded Vietnam. In the 1980s, Beijing invaded India for a second time and took Vietnam´s Spratly Islands.

And in the 1990s, amid the most open period of U.S.-China trade in 60 years, Beijing swung its military sights back to Taiwan with waves of missile tests that effectively blockaded the democratic island, a fusillade of demands that invoked memories of Austria´s pre-World War I ultimatums on Serbia and a nuclear-tipped warning for America.

China is carving out an empire of its own, and its leaders are in no mood to ask Washington for permission. They may not want war, but as Churchill surmised of Stalin and his henchmen, "they want the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power." Echoing Churchill, the Pentagon concluded that China seeks nothing less than to become the pre-eminent power in the region.

We´ve been here before. Three times in the last century alone, empires emerged that threatened America´s very existence. It wasn´t trade bills or wishful thinking that staved off those empires. In one form or another, it was conflict.

The nature of the conflict we will wage against China is still largely up to us--but only if we learn from history.

Appeasing bullies or buying them off with trade deals never keeps the peace. It failed in the 1930s, and it will fail in the 2000s. But as Churchill concluded after a lifetime of struggle against dictators, strength and resolve seldom fail.

"There is nothing they admire so much as strength," he said of the Soviets at the beginning of the first Cold War. The same could be said of the men who control Beijing today.

China and America are rapidly nearing a crossroads in history. War is not inevitable, but neither is peace. Whether or not Beijing chooses to follow the path taken by yesterday´s empires is something over which we have little control. But whether we stand by like an addict´s enablers and walk them down that path is still our choice.

It shouldn´t be a difficult one to make. A second Cold War is preferable to another shooting war in Asia.