Perhaps the most important thing to remember about China is that it is armed with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles with which to deliver them. So it is an international nuclear power and that means it gets treated with respect and deference by other nations. But when it comes to playing with fire on the international stage, Russia and the United States really aren’t in the same league as China. No other nation practices brinksmanship or plays footsie with so many other nuclear powers quite so aggressively.
To begin with, China and Russia have had a long history of mutual antagonism, and that hasn’t ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its replacement with the rule of Czar Vladmir I. Certainly Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in 1989 helped, but there are still territorial disputes with Russia, but those are actually not particularly severe (and according to one source, they were resolved literally yesterday).
China has also long been a sponsor of the poorly-named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Having propped up Kim Il-Sung in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the PRC continues to provide substantial economic support to North Korea in the form of electricity, food, and cash, and also is North Korea’s biggest trading partner. It is difficult to imagine North Korea having pushed so far ahead in its nuclear program without some degree of Chinese sponsorship.
China maintains territorial claims in the western Himalayas, too. There are significant territorial disputes between China and India and China and Pakistan, although these have settled on de facto lines of control that are not particularly tense even though no party will relinquish their overlapping territorial claims. China and India actually went to war in 1962 and nearly did so again in 1987 when India promoted the disputed western Himalayan territory of Arunachal Pradesh to a state within India’s federal system. To this day, the PRC claims portions of Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet” and part of China.
To the contrary, China and Pakistan have enjoyed close diplomatic and military relations for two generations. Their territorial disputes are slight and have been resolved as a de facto matter, and the militaries of the two nations frequently train together and their military-industrial complexes have joint products (the Al-Khalid MBT-2000 light tank and the Chengdu FC-1 Fierce Dragon multi-mission fighter aircraft) are being sold around the world to other nations, particularly those with whom U.S. or European nations will not do extensive business.
It is far from clear to what extent China is responsible for the development of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, although it seems quite clear that China would stand by its ally in the event of an overt war with nuclear power India and China openly assisted Pakistan in the creation of two nuclear power plants in the late 1990’s that enrich uranium to weapons-grade quality. So it is quite likely that China is responsible, in part, for the nuclearization of Pakistan’s military. Given that Pakistan is technically in a low-grade war with India over the Kashmir Valley, and both nations are armed with nukes, this is not happy news. Given that Pakistan is entering a politically unstable phase of its history this week and the best guess is that religious parties will take power in the wake of the fall of Pervez Musharraf, it is even less welcome to note that China’s friends in Islamabad have nuclear weapons and mid-range ballistic missiles at their disposal.
But nowhere does the PRC’s willingness to toy with nuclear powers grow more dangerous than looking across the Straits of Formosa. Both the government of the People’s Republic of China and the government of the Republic of China, which we call “Taiwan,” claim to be the legitimate government of all of China. This traces back to the outcome of the Chinese Civil War in 1949-1950, and Chinese on both sides of the Strait have been kind of weird about the whole thing ever since. Only recently have Taiwanese leaders been willing to state the patently obvious truth that Taiwan and the People’s Republic are different nations (this would be a “Two Chinas” policy) and the PRC has threatened to withdraw diplomatic relations with any nation that does not recognize the “unity” of all of China. As far as the PRC is concerned, they just haven’t gotten around to driving the running-dog rebels out of Taiwan Province just yet.
So, periodically, the PRC will mobilize its entire navy and much of its land forces just across the 85-mile strait, and go through training exercises and war games designed to simulate an invasion of Taiwan. Since this looks exactly like an actual invasion of Taiwan, the U.S. is pretty much obliged to send a couple carrier groups there also, just in case this time, it’s not really a game. Of course, so many ships, aircraft, and amphibious forces all in the same place at the same time creates a lot of opportunities for signals to get crossed and maneuvers to be misunderstood, and don’t forget that we’re kind of concerned that the PRC forces aren’t going to really attack our ally and trading partner.
We treat our fellow members of the nuclear club with kid gloves. So do the UK and France and Israel. Witness, for instance, our hands-off diplomatic scolding of Russia for its involvement in the South Ossestian conflict in Georgia. We will cluck our disapproval loudly at Russia, just as Russia clucks its disapproval of our ongoing activities in Iraq. But China is much more willing to engage in direct provocation of other powers, including the U.S. directly, despite the apparent risk that such conflicts could escalate into nuclear exchanges.