Monday, March 29, 2004

The televised hearings convened last week by the September 11 Commission proved to be one of the most interesting and valuable civics lessons of all time. In particular, they made a point Americans cannot hear too often: The world is generally a dangerous place for the United States, its people and its interests — whether we think so or not, and most especially when we don’t. After all, at such times, we frequently squander opportunities to bring to bear the leadership and popular attention, military might and other national resources that could nip in the bud problems that will prove very costly to address later.

In particular, the hearings illuminated that the international situation bequeathed by Bill Clinton to George Bush was considerably more threatening than was widely perceived at the time. Understandably, given the mandate of the commission, its members and their witnesses focused on one of those threats — the Islamist al Qaeda organization — and how it flourished largely unchecked during the eight years of the Clinton presidency and the eight months Mr. Bush was in office prior to September 11, despite this network’s repeated, murderous acts of terror.

Unfortunately, there is another danger that grew inexorably over the pre-September 11 years: a Communist China bent on becoming not just the dominant nation in Asia, but a superpower and “peer competitor” to the United States.

If the Bush 43 team was, as Richard Clarke contends, giving too little attention to Osama bin Laden and his followers, one reason might have been it was reckoning — both before and after Beijing’s April 1, 2001, take-down of an unarmed American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft — with the near- and longer-term strategic implications of an increasingly formidable and aggressive China. All that changed after September 11, when China was supposedly transformed into an ally on terror and North Korea.

Yet, such critical thinking is, if anything, even more warranted today in light of the following:

• China is crushing freedom in Hong Kong. Ever since Britain surrendered the Crown Colony to the PRC in 1997, Beijing has, like a boa constrictor, inexorably tightened its grip on the people of Hong Kong. After briefly backing away from antidemocratic legislation in the face of massive public protests, the communists are now shredding what remains of the assurances it gave the United Kingdom about respecting liberty. Party organs are brazenly trying to intimidate courageous, freely elected legislators like Martin Lee and their followers by branding them “traitors.”

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal quoted Liu Kin-ming, who runs the editorial page of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Apple Daily: “[At the time of the Chinese takeover], some said the city would be a ‘freedom virus’ that would infect the rest of China. Nearly seven years later, that thesis is tough to support, Mr. Liu says. Also increasingly tough to support is speculation that Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who took power more than a year ago, would promote substantive political change in China. ‘If Hong Kong isn’t going to have democracy, then forget about the rest of China,’ Mr. Liu says.”

• Communist China is no less actively threatening and otherwise trying to stifle the other Chinese experiment in democracy: Taiwan. In the wake of still-contested Taiwanese presidential polling that Beijing sought to influence — through intimidation (some 500 PRC ballistic missiles are now aimed at the Taiwanese people), pressure on the island’s businessmen who are investing in or trading with the mainland and perhaps other, more covert means — the communists have declared: “We will not sit back and look on unconcerned should the postelection situation in Taiwan get out of control, leading to social turmoil, endangering the lives and property of Taiwan compatriots and affecting stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

• The missiles pointed at Taiwan are not the only manifestation of China’s interest in being able to project power decisively in its region and emerge as the arbiter of Asian affairs. Center for Security Policy Asia Fellow Richard Fisher has noted that, with considerable help from the former Soviet military-industrial complex and cash supplied by Western consumers, the People’s Liberation Army could have by the end of this decade as many as three new nuclear submarines, 27 new Kilo-class conventional subs plus about 18 older, but still potentially lethal, diesel submarines. Such an underwater force could, particularly when taken together with comparable improvements in its missile-equipped surface fleet and aviation arms, present a serious challenge to American efforts to defend Taiwan or other U.S. interests in the Western Pacific.

• Communist China is taking other steps with worrisome strategic implications. Testimony Dr. Peter Leitner and I presented before Sen. James Inhofe’s Environment and Public Works Committee last week noted Beijing’s use of the controversial Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST):

( a) To install fortified bastions on reefs, allowing it to lay claim to ever greater swathes of the South China Sea.

(b) And to try to thwart President Bush’s new Proliferation Security Initiative. The latter is essential to U.S. efforts to prevent the transfer of weapons of mass destruction-related materials on the high seas. Were the United States unwisely to become party to this misbegotten treaty, it is a safe bet the Chinese will also try to employ LOST as a precedent for no-less-cynical efforts in the future to advance its determination to make military use of space, while constraining this country’s ability to do so.

The good news is that the Communist Chinese threat is being subjected to intense, if less publicized, scrutiny by another congressionally mandated, bipartisan panel: the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, ably chaired by my colleague, Roger Robinson.

Given the stakes — and the current, virtually complete lack of official and public attention to the menace posed by the PRC today and in the future — the critical policy review provided by the China Commission may prove, if anything, even more needed than the findings of its more celebrated September 11 counterpart.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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