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China's reaction to America's Iraq imbroglio
Willy Lam
5/15/2004

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has been at pains not to appear to be gloating over the American quagmire in Iraq. Yet in terms of geopolitical calculus, there is little doubt Beijing sees America's worsening problems in Iraq as beneficial to China's global standing, diplomatically and militarily. Capitalizing on fissures in the international community over Iraq and America's war on terror, China has strengthened ties with key members of the European Union and the United Nations in an effort to counterbalance U.S. hegemony. Meanwhile, Chinese experts' scrutiny of the exploits as well as challenges of American and Allied Forces in Iraq will have a big impact on the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) ambitious modernization drive.

For obvious diplomatic reasons, the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has kept its public statements on America's Iraq imbroglio to a minimum. Except for comments on the seven Fujian Province contract workers abducted near the Jordanian border, senior cadres have steered clear of any assessment of the state of affairs in Iraq. However, the official view can be gauged from reports and analyses in the state media that paints a gloomy picture of America's future in the oil-rich but bitterly fragmented country.

The China News Service (CNS) said in a commentary last week that "the situation in post-war Iraq has become more and more chaotic despite efforts in reconstruction [by the U.S.]." Xinhua News Agency's verdict on the war's first anniversary was even more explicit: "After one year, the situation in Iraq is still a mess. New battles are raging even as old wounds have not healed. And the trend of the entire populace rising up in revolt [against the Americans] has emerged." Added the People's Daily: "One year after, [Iraqis] have not seen heaven; they have instead been plunged into hell."

The Chinese argument is based on observations that despite the efficacy of America's hi-tech weapons and the billions of dollars lavished in rebuilding the land, the U.S. has alienated most sectors of Iraqi society. A Xinhua dispatch last week pointed out that "even people who have benefited [materially] from the new administration have shown dissatisfaction at continued American occupation." It quoted an Iraq journalist as saying "while the Americans have destroyed Saddam, they have turned the entire Iraq into terrorism's premier frontline."

Chinese experts interviewed by the media for the war's first anniversary have concluded that both American hard and soft power has been dealt a significant blow. Domestically, the Bush administration continues to maintain record deficits, while abroad the anti-war movement has been re-ignited. Particularly after the terrorist attacks in Spain last March, European support for the American anti-terrorist campaign has declined. The kidnapping of Japanese and South Korean nationals has given new momentum to anti-war campaigns in these two key American allies in Asia. And Washington's 'Greater Middle East initiative' - whose gist is to transform and modernize the area using Western democratic values - is in jeopardy. CNS commentator Hu Yan concluded that, "America's world image has been shattered because of its policy of unilateralism."

Developing a Multi-polar World

The implications for China are significant. A key Chinese consideration regarding the Iraq War has been that if the U.S. were bogged down in the Middle East, it cannot afford to devote as much energy to the time-honored "anti-China containment policy." The latter is a reference to the conspiracy theory that a major foreign policy goal of Washington is to prevent China's emergence as a quasi-superpower. As Peking University international affairs professor Niu Jun pointed out even before the start of hostilities: "Americans will be bogged down [in Iraq] and we shall have less to worry about."

Strategic and military specialists in Beijing think that with American forces and efforts concentrated on Iraq - as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan - the Bush administration cannot afford to engage in military action on another front. Individual hard-line elements in the PLA have gone so far as to argue that this is an opportune juncture for the "armed liberation of Taiwan" because neither the U.S. nor its Asian allies would be in a position to intervene in the Taiwan Strait.

While this hawkish view is not shared by the CCP leadership, the latter is convinced that Beijing can take advantage of the situation to press diplomatic gains. Take for instance, the North Korean nuclear crisis. Given its preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington's 'military option' against North Korea has been vastly diminished. "The Bush White House now needs Beijing more than ever to use diplomatic and other leverage to oblige Pyongyong to come to a deal on dismantling its weapons of mass destruction," said a Beijing source close to the diplomatic apparatus. The source indicated that Washington would also require Chinese cooperation when it turns to the United Nations Security Council for help in Iraq. President Hu and other leaders talking to Vice-President Dick Cheney in Beijing this week are expected to press Washington to yield a substantial part of its 'monopolistic' authority over Iraq to the U.N.

Setbacks suffered by the U.S. in the Middle East will also afford an opportunity for Beijing to rekindle its long-standing objective of constructing a multi-polar world, or a global order not dominated by one superpower. One key goal of Beijing this year is to forge even more intimate ties with the European Union - in particular powers that have opposed American 'unilateralism' such as France and Germany. Given the likelihood that after the November U.S. presidential elections, the Bush - or John Kerry - administration will have to re-embrace a more 'internationalist' diplomatic line, China is working on closer cooperation particularly with fellow Security Council members such as France and Russia to put further checks on American unilateralism.

Military Calculations

Despite Beijing's generally negative appraisal of America's future in Iraq, there is no denying the fact that the stunning display of hi-tech U.S. firepower in Iraq and Afghanistan has persuaded China's policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC) to speed up the pace of military modernization. While summing up America's overall strategy in Iraq, Chinese strategists have highlighted the following points: high technology, high mobility, ubiquitous intelligence gathering, and a relatively small number of ground troops.

The CMC, still headed by ex-president Jiang Zemin, decided late last year on a further round of demobilization as well as substantial streamlining of the command-and-control apparatus. The official - and much understated - PLA budget was recently boosted by 11.6%. The acquisition and development of state-of-the-art weapons particularly for the air force and navy have been given top priority. Moreover, Jiang and President Hu, also CMC Vice-Chairman, have put their imprimatur on the fast-paced digitalization of PLA operations as well as armaments.

However, the setbacks suffered by the American and Allied Forces since March have also alerted PLA experts to the importance of asymmetrical warfare, a specialty that the Chinese have developed for at least a decade. Even at the start of the Iraq War, military commentators on Chinese TV dwelled on instances when top-of-the-line hardware including Tomahawk missiles, high-precision 'smart' bombs, Apache attack helicopters, had missed the mark - or been shot down by Iraqi militias using much less sophisticated weapons.

Moreover, military academicians are working on the modernization of Mao Zedong's famous concept of 'People's Warfare'. In line with the perception that the vastly superior Coalition Forces have been bogged down if not overwhelmed by a persistent 'all-people resistance', PLA theoreticians have played up the relevance of Chairman Mao's teachings about sustained, guerrilla and asymmetrical warfare through turning patriotic citizens into crafty and ideologically fired fighters. As the Great Helmsman wrote in his classic Guerrilla Warfare 67 years ago: "When the invader pierces deep into the heart of the weaker country and occupies its territory in a cruel and oppressive manner, there is no doubt that conditions of terrain, climate and society … may be used to advantage [against the enemy]."

Irrespective of the outcome of what some Western commentators have called the 'second phase' of the Iraq War, Beijing is tipped to play a more pro-active role in establishing a multi-polar world order - and to develop the requisite military muscle to back up its diplomatic initiatives.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia's best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN's Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.

This article appears on AFAR with permission from Jamestown Foundation, China Brief.

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