Toronto Star - Building alliance against China

December 29, 1999

Asian-Pacific nations aiming for democracy

By David Van Praagh

OTTAWA - A few months ago in New Delhi, one of the most influential figures in India's new government told me that nominally non-aligned India wanted "collective engagement" with the United States and other Western and Asian powers to prevent China from dominating the most populous continent.

His voluntarily making this point would have been significant at any time. It was more so when Indian forces were fighting to expel not Chinese but Pakistani intruders in disputed Kashmir.

Shortly afterward in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, long prime minister, and foremost exponent of "Asian values" as Asia's senior mandarin, surprised me during an interview by welcoming NATO action in Kosovo for showing the world there would be, in his words, "no toleration of barbarous behaviour."

"It sets a very important precedent," asserted Lee, widely known for resisting liberal Western values. "I think that's a plus for humanity."

Several weeks ago in Ottawa, Masahiro Akiyama, former vice minister of the Japan Defence Agency, now at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, spoke to invited guests about an Asia-Pacific "security agenda" in a "new era." Most of his remarks reflected the usual Japanese ambiguity on military questions.

But when I asked him whether he was suggesting joint security arrangements by the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, and other Asian countries to meet threats to peace and security in the vast region, Akiyama said he couldn't have answered as a Japanese official. But he could say privately he did mean collective security, and China was a "big problem" in discussing how to bring it about.

At the end of a century in which the human race closely escaped monumental fascist and communist threats, Russian President Boris Yeltsin chose to go to Beijing to brandish his nuclear weapons and spurn Western appeals to stop human slaughter in Chechnya.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin embraced and supported Yeltsin. As Russia moves toward resource-rich parts of the Caucasus and Central Asia once within the Soviet Union, so China aims to re-establish historic hegemony over much of Asia and the Pacific, as well as keeping control of Tibet. Communist allies in the past and, perhaps, in the future, both make no secret of wanting to stop in its tracks collective action against brutal conduct by the international community, starting with better-late-than-never successes in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.

But as the 21st century dawns, another secret is out in Asia-Pacific countries seeking to strengthen and spread democracy and democratic capitalism. It is the intent to build and maintain an alliance - even if it isn't called an alliance - against China.

Leaders of these countries are still reluctant to use that word. They're far from agreeing on how collective security would work in a part of the world where it's conspicuous by its absence.

Moreover, Russia's increasing military irresponsibility - and the likelihood that hardliners will win Russian parliamentary and presidential elections in the first half of 2000 - make the challenge more complex as well as more urgent. A defensive democratic alliance may eventually have to be truly Eurasian in scope - a huge expansion of NATO - to be effective.

But what is certain is that minds in a number of threatened countries are concentrating on how to deal with China - beyond economic engagement that allows its dictators to reach their avowed goal of superpower status more rapidly - without pressing them to let up on suffocating political repression.

Many Japanese are looking for a way to get around the dual World War II legacy of a "no-war" constitution and opposition by other Asians to a military role. Then, what is still Asia's economic dynamo could go beyond the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty to what Akiyama called "multilateral security in Asia and the Pacific."

Smaller Asian democracies such as Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines realize the day is coming when bilateral U.S. protection may not be enough to restrain Chinese ambitions. So does Indonesia, as it struggles to become a democracy as one nation. Lee Kuan Yew's ethnic Chinese Singapore, while anxious to avoid U.S.-China confrontation, is providing a berth for the largest U.S. aircraft carrier. Taiwan needs missiles to balance nearby Chinese missiles.

India is building up its nuclear capability, not against Pakistan, even under a hostile military ruler, but to deter a nuclear threat from China. But the newly elected government prefers "collective engagement" with other powers to simply acting on its own.

No collective security measures can take shape, however, before election of a new U.S. president. Bill Clinton's dangerous 1998 "strategic partnership" with China is effectively dead one year before he leaves office. But it will take far-seeing leadership to create a democratic alliance in Asia and the Pacific.

David Van Praagh, a journalist who has covered Asian affairs for many years, is a professor of journalism at Carleton University.

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