sexta-feira, abril 24, 2009

418) A China se lanca ao mar, com toda a potencia possivel

China flexes new economic muscle at sea
Financial Time, April 22 2009

In 1888, Qing Dynasty China splashed out some 1,350 tonnes of silver to buy its North Sea Fleet, which almost overnight became the world’s eighth largest navy and, supposedly, the most formidable in Asia. That fiction was dramatically exposed just six years later when China’s shiny new armada was crushed by the much better organised Imperial Navy of Japan in the Battle of the Yalu River. The humiliating defeat accelerated the decline of China and the rise of Japan, a shift in power cemented a decade later by Japan’s stunning naval victory over Russia.

The rebirth of China‘s modern navy, which has just celebrated its 60th anniversary in the north-eastern port of Qingdao, is an inevitable by-product of the country’s economic renaissance. China’s navy may not yet quite match that of Japan, though it has a better name: the People’s Liberation Army Navy (which, in English, sounds like a revolutionary clothing store) versus Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Force. Yet the trend is clear enough. Japan’s military spending is limited – by postwar pacifist convention, if not by law – to 1 per cent of gross domestic product. Defence analysts estimate that China spends roughly 4 per cent of a smaller but far faster-growing GDP on its military, of which the navy is an increasingly prestigious part.

Unhappily, Japan was pointedly excluded from the list of 14 nations whose ships were invited to Qingdao. Last June, a Japanese destroyer was allowed to dock in the Chinese port of Zhanjiang, the first time in more than 60 years that a naval vessel bearing the Rising Sun flag was permitted within firing range of China’s coast. But attending a ceremony to mark the 1949 anniversary, when ships belonging to the Kuomintang nationalists defected to the Communist party, was evidently an act of reconciliation too far.

The US was more favoured. Soured military relations over Washington’s recent decision to sell more arms to Taiwan notwithstanding, Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of US naval operations, was asked to participate. His host, Admiral Wu Shengli, even invited him to fly by military aircraft from Beijing to Qingdao.

Such niceties aside, the US has expressed anxiety over China’s efforts to build a blue-water navy capable – at least theoretically – of projecting power far beyond Chinese shores. A Congressional Research Services report, updated in November 2008, said China aimed, by as early as 2010, to build a force capable of deterring or preventing US access to the Taiwan Straits in the event of a conflict over an island state Beijing regards as its own. In the medium term, the report speculated, other strategic objectives could include “displacing US regional military influence”, with the possible eventual goal of encouraging US withdrawal from the Pacific; pursuing maritime territorial disputes; and protecting sea lanes for China’s imports of oil and other minerals. Both Washington and Tokyo have consistently expressed concern at what they say is lack of transparency in Beijing’s military spending.

It is only natural that Washington and Tokyo should watch the rise of China’s navy with some nervousness. It may be decades before Beijing has a navy to match that of the US. But when that day approaches, it will raise awkward questions of a postwar balance of power in the Pacific that has been kept largely thanks to the US presence. Both the US and Japan must be hoping that, when that time arrives, they are dealing with a more democratic Beijing – even if this rests on the uncertain premise that democracies are less likely to throw their weight around than authoritarian states.

China, of course, insists it has no bellicose intentions. Major General Qian Lihua, director of the ministry’s foreign affairs office, told the FT last year: “Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike another country we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach.”

One does not need to swallow this hook, line and sinker (no maritime pun intended) to acknowledge that, as China becomes more deeply embedded in global trade, it will feel the need to protect its interests.

Ni Lexiong, a military expert with the Shanghai Institute of Political Science and Law, told the South China Morning Post: “China has joined the web of the global economy. The new mission of the PLA navy is to protect our national interests in coastal areas and the high seas, not to engage in an arms race.” Though some still dreamt of the navy becoming a world-class force capable of “wiping the humiliation” of colonialism away, he said, that was not the main purpose.

Mikkal Herberg, director of the Asian energy security programme at the National Bureau of Asian Research, agrees that Beijing’s main purpose in developing a navy may well indeed be to protect its trade flows. “China’s jugular is, at this stage, controlled by the US navy,” he says. The example of pre-war Japan shows that is never a good thing. It was at least partly its sense of vulnerability to blockade that led it to embark on its tragic and ruthless rampage across Asia.

If only for that reason, the rise of China’s navy may actually be a good thing. As China turns seawards, after centuries of looking inwards, it would be foolish to imagine there were no dangers. But it would be equally unwise to ignore the fact that a more powerful navy is an almost inevitable consequence of China’s growing integration into the global economy. That too carries risks. But on balance, it is surely something to be welcomed.

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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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