Charm And Arms: China Turns Up The Heat In Asia

The supreme art of war, Chinese general Sun-tzu argued 2,500 years ago, is to subdue without fighting. With those words in mind, Beijing has embarked on a two-track offensive. On the one hand, it is doling out the charm to its Asian neighbors. On the other, it is taking new initiatives to build up its arsenal, of particular importance in its quest to unify Taiwan with the mainland.

That China wants to boost its military might in order to bolster its diplomatic clout is no surprise. What is startling is the furious pace at which the country has been going about it. Since October, Chinese officials have made state visits to a dozen countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. On one of those trips, Premier Zhu Rongji came close to resolving a long-simmering border dispute with Vietnam. And in an overture to other neighbors, he pledged to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that China would aid development projects, most likely energy exploration, in the South China Sea. That's in sharp contrast with earlier clashes between China and ASEAN leaders over the area's islands.

Beijing's sudden charm is meant to bolster regional support for its frequent verbal confrontations with the U.S. and Taiwan. In early December, new Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid visited Beijing and came away with a joint communique signed by President Jiang Zemin that supports the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That's a slap at the U.S., whose missile-defense plans, including a possible missile shield to protect Taiwan, could violate the pact. And at the Seattle trade talks, China backed developing nations' opposition to U.S. attempts to link trade to labor issues.

The Chinese are also buying some serious weapons. On a trip to Israel in late November, Li Peng, head of the National People's Congress, visited Israel Aircraft Industries. The government-owned defense contractor has a $250 million deal to equip a Chinese military cargo plane, originally built by Russia, with an early-warning radar system, similar to the U.S. AWACS. The radar will enable China to see ships and planes over the horizon, giving it an edge in any conflict in the South China Sea or with Taiwan. Last year, a Chinese university began developing with the University of Surrey a network of small imaging satellites. They are meant to monitor disasters and agriculture, but such satellites can have military uses as well. Britain has already sold China air-to-air refueling equipment. Soon, Russia is due to deliver a destroyer carrying surface-to-air missiles. And Beijing is discussing an additional $2 billion in deals with Israel, including more early-warning systems, Israeli sources say.

ONE-ON-ONE. The Chinese are also flexing their muscles in diplomacy. Despite his conciliatory moves at the ASEAN meeting, Zhu balked at accepting a code of conduct requiring China to deal collectively with disputed claims in the South China Sea: China wants one-on-one talks to settle territorial tiffs. That gives Beijing a better chance of wringing concessions from opponents. "It's classic Chinese statecraft of divide and conquer," says a Western diplomat.

The Chinese are careful not to appear too threatening with their recent moves. "They're in no position to carry out military actions," notes James R. Lilley of the American Enterprise Institute. But the intent is more subtle: to intimidate Taipei and China's neighbors and raise the risks for the U.S. if it repeats the gunboat diplomacy it used in sending aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait in 1996. So Beijing will continue to pursue Sun-tzu's blueprint. It's one war-game plan Washington hasn't yet figured out how to defeat.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.