March 14, 1996 in Nation/World

China Sees No Threat From Russia Breakdown Of Soviet Military Leaves China Free To Bluster

Hearst Newspapers

On the face of it, the disappearance of the Soviet Union would appear unrelated to China’s decision to risk a major crisis over Taiwan.

In fact, the absence of a military threat from China’s once-powerful northern neighbor is a key factor behind Beijing’s saber-rattling and the threat it raises of a new Asian war that could easily drag in the United States.

A number of reasons help explain China’s menacing behavior.

There is genuine apprehension among Beijing’s leaders that Taiwan, which they consider a national province, might soon declare full independence unless stopped by a show of military force.

Chinese officials fear the repercussions at home if Taiwan makes such a declaration - especially when their “supreme leader” Deng Xiaopeng’s likely death soon could ignite a fresh domestic power struggle.

At the same time, the Chinese appear to be counting on their country’s swiftly growing importance as a market for western goods to keep America and other governments from intervening with more than words.

But at the core of China’s calculations is its confidence that it no longer has anything to fear from Moscow.

Sino-Soviet tensions began in the early 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev withdrew Soviet technicians from China and stopped all economic assistance in order to prevent China from becoming a nuclear power. After that, Beijing’s policies were deeply influenced by a need to keep one eye focused on what the Kremlin was up to.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Soviets boosted their military power in the Far East and made no secret of their belief that they would one day have to fight China.

Beijing’s decision in the early 1970s to adopt a dramatically new policy of detente with the United States stemmed directly from the conviction of then Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai that the Soviet Union was planning to attack.

Richard Nixon’s “opening to China” could not have occurred if the Chinese hadn’t been scared witless by prospects of a Soviet-launched preventive war, probably even a nuclear assault, against them.

In recent years, Beijing’s slow but steady reversion to a policy of aggression and suspicion toward America and the West - except in trade matters - has been in inverse proportion to the decline of Moscow’s armed might.

Russia’s ground and naval forces in the Far East are in a state of disintegration. Its main Pacific naval base at Vladivostok has become a kind of maritime junk yard.

If the Chinese authorities required further evidence that post-communist Russia is nothing to worry about, the shambles of the Kremlin’s military campaign in Chechnya has amply provided it.

Now, with no colossus of the north to fear, China, is seriously threatening Taiwan.

Russia’s loss of superpower status has, of course, been widely welcomed in Europe, the Middle East and other regions of the world where Moscow’s strength was often used during the Soviet era to stir up mischief.

Paradoxically, Russian power in the Far East, as a crucial restraint on Chinese ambitions, may come to be sorely missed.

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