To mark today’s free promotion of Dragon Strike, the NYT review of 1997.
DRAGON STRIKE The Millennium War
By Humphrey Hawksley and Simon Holberton. 388 pages. £16.99 hardback; £9.99 paperback. Sidgwick and Jackson, London.
Reviewed by Philip Bowring
THE Chinese are coming. Prepare for war in 2001. Well timed to ride a wave of concern in the West about China’s military capabilities, this book is not merely meant to entertain. It does that well enough and the format should make for a good movie too. But the authors state a higher objective squarely in the preface: “China is wealthy. It is expansionist. It is embittered about its past. China is a nondemocratic, one-party state, whose government has to prove itself to survive. This book has been written as a warning of what might happen if Western, and especially American policy toward China is allowed to drift.”
The authors of “Dragon Strike” are two journalists with long experience in Asia. Hawksley is currently a BBC correspondent in Beijing, and Holberton, an Australian, was a Financial Times correspondent in Tokyo and Hong Kong. So this book, written as a series of dispatches from Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, etc. over a few days in February-March 2001, must ultimately be judged by whether the scenario it paints is sufficiently realistic to achieve its political purpose.
In February 2001, China’s President Wang, facing dissension and unrest at home, takes a nationalistic gamble. He is confident of China’s strategic-arms capability, to which Russian technology has contributed heavily. Militarily important industries have also been improved by technology acquired through joint ventures with leading U.S. companies. China seizes all islands and oil rigs in the South China Sea and announces it is making a reality of its 1992 claim to sovereignty over that sea. Only Vietnam offers significant resistance.
The initial U.S. response is feeble, largely dictated by U.S. business groups who do not want to lose their China contracts and Chinese Americans close to the administration who cry “racism” when the prospect of confronting Beijing aggression is raised. Japan feels so let down by the United States that it conducts a nuclear test to show that in the future it will rely on its own devices, not on its dubious ally.
The United States becomes actively involved only when China sinks a navy ship sent to rescue American oil workers held on a rig seized by China. When China threatens Washington with a nuclear strike, panic and race rioting hit American cities. Rather than call China’s nuclear bluff, the president withdraws U.S. forces from the South China Sea and tries to go back to business-as-usual with a China that has made the sea its own.
In sideshows, South Korea takes a few blows but overruns the North. After the U.S. retreat, an overconfident China tries invading Taiwan but is badly bruised by its compatriots — as also by the Vietnamese. In the financial markets China makes a small fortune in futures through its British investment banker pals in Hong Kong.
The net results of the brief Millennium War are thus U.S. retreat from the Western Pacific, Chinese domination of most of Southeast Asia, Korean reunification, Japanese rearmament on a grand scale and the end of China’s hope of reunification with Taiwan.
The authors seem to exaggerate China’s military potential within the next few years, and to underestimate existing Japanese fire power. Indonesia is ignored. So too is Malaysia’s now considerable naval capability and will to fight for its islands. The premise that the South China Sea is incredibly rich in oil and vital to an oil-deficient China is almost certainly an overstatement.
The central theme, however, comes through loud and clear: The United States has little idea why it is still in the Western Pacific (other perhaps than Korea). As events every year since 1992 have shown, it has no policy toward China’s seaward expansionism, instead taking naive comfort in the benefits of “engagement” with a China whose goals have been stated and are unlikely to be changed by smiling faces.
Add a decade to 2001, and Hawksley and Holberton may be too close for comfort.
Philip Bowring, a journalist based in Hong Kong, wrote this for the International Herald Tribune.