Bad China, Good China

China is a totalitarian state. China is a fully functioning democracy.

China is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. China has one of the best human rights records in Asia.

China is an aggressive military power, which is one of a handful of states likely to start a regional war in the next decade. China is peaceful and wants nothing more than good relations with its neighbors.

China is actively engaged in cyber warfare against America. China is an historical ally of the United States that prizes its relationship with this country.

Lest you think I’ve developed a serious case of schizophrenia, I’m talking about the two Chinas -- the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC).

PRC Leader Xi Jinping was here last week, signing a meaningless agreement with Obama, wherein the parties promised not to conduct cyber attacks against each other – something only Beijing is doing.

On Saturday, the ROC will celebrate its national day (Double 10 Day), which marks the beginning of the revolution that led to the establishment of the Republic of China by Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1912. Since Taiwan stopped being assertive in the international arena, and Beijing stopped saber-rattling (though sabers are still being forged), for most Americans, Taiwan has fallen off the radar screen. Yet the island is, if anything, more important today than it was 20 years ago.

Though they have a common culture, the two Chinas couldn’t be more different. Freedom House rates countries on a scale of 1 to 7 – 1 being the freest and 7 the most gulag-like. The PRC gets an overall rating of 6 – with a rating of 6 on civil liberties and 7 on political rights -- on par with Cuba, North Korea and Iran. The ROC is rated 1.5 overall, with 2 on civil liberties and 1 on political rights, comparable to mature democracies.

The gleaming skyscrapers of Shanghai are deceptive. Politically, it’s still 1989 in the PRC, when tanks rolled over pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese Communist Party has absolute power. It owns every media outlet and enforces strict censorship – as could be seen in coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre last year. In 2009, Nobel Prize winner Lui Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for helping to organize the reformist manifesto Charter 08.

Once, Taiwan was as authoritarian as Mainland China is totalitarian.  Things started to change in 1987 when martial law was lifted. In 1996, the island had its first direct presidential election. Since then, there have been two peaceful transfers of power between the rival KMT (Nationalists) and DPP (Democratic Progressives).

Freedom House says, “Taiwan’s multiparty system features vigorous competition between the two parties, the KMT and the DPP. Opposition parties are able to function without interference.” The DPP held the presidency for 8 years, from 2000 to 2008. The KMT has controlled both the executive and legislative branches since then. But the DPP dominated last year’s municipal elections, which may be signal another power shift. Freedom House notes, “Taiwan’s media reflect diversity of views and report aggressively on government policies and corruption allegations, though many outlets display strong party affiliation in their coverage.”

Mainland China has an increasingly aggressive military posture, which includes cyber warfare. In a 2014 analysis (“China Challenges Obama’s Asia Pivot With Rapid Military Buildup”), Bloomberg Business discussed China’s trade surplus with the U.S. – then $562 billion, up 38% in five years -- fueling military expansion. This includes rapid modernization of ships and planes, a new class of anti-ship ballistic missiles and unilaterally extending its territorial waters to include most of the South China Sea, with its energy resources and strategic position.

Bloomberg quotes Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, confessing, “I am concerned by the aggressive growth of the Chinese military, their lack of transparency, and a pattern of increasingly aggressive behavior in the region.”

Frank Gaffney, president of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, warned on the eve of Xi’s visit: “Let us be clear, China’s highest priority goal is to end American political/strategic leadership in Asia and to force Asian democracies and U.S. allies to subordinate their security to Chinese hegemony and dictates.”

The PRC’s cyber warfare is an important component of that plan. Targets of its hacking have included the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Departments of State, Energy and Commerce, and nuclear weapons labs. Leaders of the People’s Liberation Army are clear about what they’re doing and why. In his 2002 book, “Direct Information Warfare,” Chinese Gen. Dai Qingmin wrote, “Computer network reconnaissance is a prerequisite for sizing victory in warfare. “

Retired Lt. Colonel Timothy Thomas, formerly with the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, who’s spent two decades studying Beijing’s cyber strategy, explains, “Why do I do reconnaissance of your (cyber) system? I’m looking for vulnerabilities. I’m establishing a strategic advantage that enables me to win a victory before the first battle.”

Before that battle, the PRC intends to gobble up the ROC. Beijing wants to incorporate Taiwan’s robust economy (GDP of $526.8 billion, making it the 26th largest in the world) with its own and to control both sides of the Taiwan Straits, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Although President Obama doesn’t understand it, we are engaged in a deadly power struggle with the PRC which is likely to end in an armed conflict. In that great game, Taiwan is an increasingly important asset.

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