22 MAY 1993, Page 20


Don't count Balkan raindrops, look out for the eastern typhoon


One of the great diplomatic lessons of the 19th century is that the great powers should not waste too much time on the Balkans. The problems of the Balkans are infinitely complex and ultimately insoluble because they are rooted in the nature of the inhabitants themselves, especially their intransigence. Short of exterminating them, there is really nothing to be done, The European chancelleries of the old regime did not grasp this point, and so continued to fret and hold crisis conferences about Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Banat of Tamis- var, the Dobruja, Bukovina and other obscure but important-sounding places. All to no purpose: the Balkans led to the first world war, thus ending a century of general peace, primarily because all the senseless fretting had convinced the powers that this miserable part of the world mattered. Needless to say, the Balkan peoples, or I should say their political elites, loved to be the centre of the world drama, and played up energetically. They still do. I have never come across characters more anxious for attention than Serb political bosses. As we are seeing, they do not mind the world hat- ing them. What they cannot bear is being ignored. But why should we pander to their egos when there are more pressing matters to attend to?

It is hard to get such elementary geopo- litical facts of life into the heads of ignorant people like President Clinton and John Major. In his new book, A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World, the Israeli statesman Benjamin Netanyahu points out that few people, when they think about international affairs, have any sense of rela- tive scale. During the Gulf war, when he was Israel's spokesman on world television, he astounded viewers by using maps simply to show the truth: that the Arab world is more than 500 times the size of Israel. Many people wrote to him as a result say- ing this had changed their entire apprecia- tion of the problem of the Middle East. Hence, at the risk of stating the obvious, I would like to remind people that the com- bined population of all the seven principal peoples of former Yugoslavia comes to not much more than 23 million. By compari- son, the population of China is more than 40 times as great.

Why China? Because, while the civilised powers are again fretting themselves into a state over the Balkan mess, while it absorbs a great proportion of the time and energy of western policy-makers and threatens to swallow up an even greater share of the West's meagre military resources, the threat of China, and still more the threat which China will present in a few years' time, remains largely unaddressed. In pop- ulation, China is the world's biggest state, and its current rate of economic growth, though not precisely calculable, is among the world's highest. Equally important, it is the only large-scale totalitarian tyranny left in the world, shameless, unrepentant and blustering. Last week's visit by the Dalai Lama to Britain is a reminder that China, now that the Soviet Union has disintegrat- ed, is also the last of the empires. The 'eth- nic cleansing' it practises in Tibet has been far more systematic and prolonged than anything the Serbs have contrived in Bosnia. It fails to arouse our fury simply because we have not seen it happening on our television screens. Moreover, Britain, with the agreement of the United States, is proposing to hand over to this tyranny, in four years time, some 4 million British sub- jects, brought up under the rule of law. The recent disclosure of China's secret plans to station an army of occupation in Hong Kong leaves us in little doubt about how it will act in its new colony. Why are we proposing to intervene in force to make the Serbs behave while we leave China strictly alone? Is this another case of double stan- dards — or of fear?

If the answer is fear, then let us consider whether we will fear Communist China more today or in 10 or 20 years' time. China has been a thermonuclear power for some years but up to the present it has been a regional great power rather than a global superpower. That may be changing, perhaps faster than we realise or care to know, Compared with the close attention the West's politicians and media devoted to the expansion of Soviet military power from the 1940s onwards — and the resul- tant efforts to contain it — China's contin- uing military growth is not news. No doubt it is carefully monitored by our intelligence agencies. But it is not an issue in Europe or North America.

Yet such evidence as does come into the public domain suggests that China's mili- tary build-up continues as remorselessly as its economic expansion, and that it may have accelerated in certain respects since Russia ceased to be a superpower. China's military growth, indeed, is parasitical upon Russia's military decline, since China is buying from the shrunken and poverty- stricken giant not just advanced military technology but entire existing weapons-sys- tems, from highly sophisticated air- defences to aircraft carriers. The expansion of the Chinese navy is becoming a sinister fact of life in the western Pacific, where there are a large number of unresolved dis- putes over islands and conflicting claims to potentially oil-bearing territorial waters, sea-lanes and the like. A big-navy China holds considerable menace not merely to Taiwan, which it already claims, but possi- bly to places like Singapore if it asserts its right to govern predominantly Chinese societies wherever they are to be found.

There are all the signs that China will enter the world arena decisively in the next few years, rather as the Soviet Union began to do in the mid-1950s. A recent Far East conference on energy resources calculated that China's rapidly expanding economy will need to import oil from about 1995 onwards, and that in order to pay for it China will export large quantities of arms and military technology to Middle Eastern oil powers such as Iran and Iraq. China's arrival as a Middle Eastern great power could cause us as many headaches as the irruption of Comrade Khrushchev there to 1955; and that is only one example of the way in which an evermore powerful and outreaching totalitarian China will alter geopolitics. The truth is that television is a distorting lens through which to assess the world. We must not overrate the signifi- cance of piddling Balkan dramas, just because we can watch them from our liv- ing-rooms, at the price of ignoring gather- ing storms which are yet invisible but could ultimately overwhelm us.