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I Fear for the Future of the New Republic…


You might ask “How could it get any worse?” To that query, I reply “Mr. James Kirchick.”

First things first, in accusing Eric Alterman and Matt Yglesias of nihilism for the crime of linking to my denunciation of Christopher Hitchens China column, Mr. Kirchick handily demonstrates that he doesn’t know what the word nihilism means. Here’s a hint, from an authority no less august than Jeffrey “Dude” Lebowski:

Nihilists, man. They believe in nothing!

Now, while we can hardly expect that Mr. Kirchick would achieve the wisdom of The Dude, we perhaps could hope that he would actually read the nihilistic post in question. Instead, he simply asserts, without evidence, that Christopher Hitchens related a series of “cold, hard facts” about Sino-American relations, and that our refusal to accept these facts implies support of the military junta in Burma, and adherence to the aforementioned nihilism.

Unfortunately, neither Mr. Kirchick nor Christopher Hitchens have the first coherent idea about Sino-American relations. I’m almost more willing to forgive Hitch than Kirchick; after all, I aspire to his remarkably successful career of alcoholic punditry. Hitchens is nothing more than a bomb thrower, and bomb throwers are never, by design, over-careful regarding their factual claims. Kirchick, as an apparent rising star at a major American magazine, ought to be a bit more reticent regarding evidentiary claims. Thus, in an effort to educate the young Mr. Kirchick, I’ll take the time to deal with each of Christopher Hitchens claims (all of which, again, Mr. Kirchick heartily endorses) in detail:

China also maintains territorial claims against India and Vietnam (and, of course, Taiwan)

China recently made a claim to parts of an Indian province on the Chinese border. Anyone who isn’t a grade A moron understood this as a counter to India’s claims on territory won by China in the Sino-Indian War of 1962. No person of any wisdom would delve into the merit of these counter-claims, as they depend on uncertain colonial boundaries drawn by the British Empire and the Qing Dynasty. The Chinese claim is a relatively transparent effort to create grounds for a trade with India, and only the aforementioned grade A moron would believe that these claims will ever result in a military dispute. The Vietnamese claims are similarly twitchy on merit; it’s not plausible simply to assert that they represent Chinese aggression, as the Chinese have plausible grounds for the territorial claims on both legal and historical grounds. As for the Taiwanese claim, it’s worth noting that roughly half of the Taiwanese population agrees with the argument that Taiwan is an integral part of China; there is disagreement about the means of re-unification, but the claim itself is uncontroversial to a very large portion of the Taiwanese population, and to almost the entire population of the PRC.

and is building a vast army, as well as a huge oceangoing navy, to back up these ambitions.

The first statement is flatly untrue; the size of the People’s Liberation Army has declined, not increased, over the past two decades. It’s relative fighting power has (probably) increased, but this is as much a consequence of China’s economic and technological growth as an indicator of Chinese aggression. As for the People’s Liberation Army Navy, I have detailed on this blog on many occasions the spasmodic growth of the PLAN. There is no question that the Chinese navy is growing, or that it’s oceangoing component is increasing. However, no sane observer would concur with the term “huge”, unless both Kirchick and Hitchens have a vastly different understanding of the word huge than myself. The Chinese navy remains substantially inferior in size and quality to the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. Its most advanced units are hopelessly outclassed by those of South Korea and Taiwan. Against the Seventh and Third Fleets of the United States Navy (those allocated to Pacific Command) the lifespan of the PLAN could be measured in days, if not hours. There is growth potential; in twenty or twenty-five years the PLAN might threaten to achieve temporary local superiority against either the JMSDF or the USN (although probably not a coalition of the two), but until then the word “huge” is probably best used to describe either Mr. Hitchens hangover or Mr. Kirchick’s ego.

It seems an eon ago, because it was before Sept. 11, 2001, but we should not forget what happened when an American aircraft was involved in a midair collision over Hainan island in the early days of this administration. The Chinese acted as if the accident was deliberate, impounded the plane and the crew for several days, and mounted mass demonstrations of hysterical chauvinism. Events in the Middle East have since obscured this menacing picture, but actually it is in that region that China’s cynical statecraft is most obviously on display. If Beijing had had its way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power. Iran is being supplied with Chinese Silkworm missiles.

You really have to wonder where Hitch and Kirchick have been for the last six years. Apparently it escaped both of them that Chinese foreign policy during the Bush administration has been, according to any plausible observation, geared towards accomodation rather than confrontation. I daresay that if one of the Tu-95s that the Russians have recently been flying along the Alaskan coast had bumped an F-15, killing the latter’s pilot, that the United States would issue a very strong diplomatic condemnation of Russian behavior and, in all likelihood, send the Tu-95 home in a box. Kirchick and Hitchens were apparently asleep and comatose, respectively, during the run-up to the Iraq War, else they would have noticed that China made no obvious move to counter the US effort at the UN, and no vocal effort to condemn the invasion itself. Rather, the Chinese used the helpful cover of the War on Terror to repress dissent in Xinjiang, and took advantage of the newfound radioactive diplomatic status of the United States to extend diplomatic and economic contacts with Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Islamic world. Nowhere, outside of the fantasies of neoconservatives and PACCOM bureaucrats, has China adopted a confrontational position regarding the United States. Even neocons tend to temper their claims with reference to the future; China will be a challenger to the United States, rather than China has challenged the US established world order.

Also, while the claims about Chinese missiles supplied to Iran are rather rich, given the weapons that the US supplies to foul regimes all over the world, they’re also quite wrong; China stopped giving Silkworms to the Iranians in 1989.

Most horribly of all, China buys most of the oil of Sudan and in return provides the weaponry—and the diplomatic cover at the United Nations—for the cleansing of Darfur.

In the original post, I compared this statement to US support for the brutal authoritarian regime of the House of Saud. That was really going too far afield; US behavior towards the Chinese regime has been at least as favorable as Chinese behavior towards Burma over the past six years. I’m genuinely curious about what Mr. Kirchick thinks about US economic relations with China; if we’re really in the midst of confrontation, then why does the US continue to borrow huge sums of money from the Chinese government? And why has US investment in China steadily increased? And why has trade between the US and China metastasized over the past fifteen years? And why have American corporation steadfastly resisted efforts (both in the US and China) to establish labor, environmental, and consumer regulations on their investments?

The first lesson here is that one ought not rely on Christopher Hitchens for evidentiary claims. The second lesson is that one ought not make nonsensical claims about nihilism when one a) doesn’t know what that word means, and b) didn’t bother to look it up at Wikipedia. The third lesson is that one ought to read a post before reacting to it; I (and I imagine Matt and Eric as well) probably agree with Mr. Kirchick that Chinese behavior towards Burma and Darfur is bad, and that changes in said behavior might have genuinely beneficial effects. The fourth lesson is that The New Republic has a grim, grim future.

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