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The end of the Sino-American honeymoon?
Willy Lam
7/18/2004

The post-September 11 Sino-American rapprochement, based on the two countries' "partnership" in fighting global terrorism, appears to be in danger of rupture – at least from the perspective of the administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. According to Chinese diplomatic sources in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA), the country's highest diplomatic decision-making organ, has come up with this latest assessment of the United States: "an untrustworthy, duplicitous superpower."

According to the sources, the significant decline in Beijing's appraisal of the George W. Bush administration is largely based on the CCP leadership's conviction that the White House has gone back on its word with regard to reining in the pro-independence gambit of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian. As Beijing sees it, a kind of quid pro quo was obtained between the two major countries since the September 11 attacks. Thus, China has largely acquiesced in U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq – and Beijing has played a sizeable role in putting pressure on North Korea to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In return, Washington was supposed to exert influence on Taipei to desist from seeking "creeping independence."

Washington did put considerable effort early this year toward dissuading President Chen from holding referendums to seek independence; and it was partly due to U.S. pressure that the Taiwan leader pledged last month that the forthcoming constitutional revision would not involve sovereignty matters. Since Chen's problematic re-election victory last March, however, the CCP leadership is increasingly alarmed by signs of "duplicity" on the part of Washington. People's Liberation Army (PLA) generals are particularly concerned about the U.S. continuing to provide military and other support to Taipei.

Signs of "collusion" between Washington and Taipei seem aplenty. President Bush earlier this month signed a bill authorizing Secretary of State Colin Powell to help facilitate Taiwan's gaining observer status in the World Health Assembly. Beijing is even more incensed by evidence of growing U.S.-Taiwan military ties. A senior Taiwan delegation led by the powerful head of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng, came to the U.S. this past week to look at possible procurement of anti-missile Patriot batteries, submarine-hunting jet fighters, as well as submarines. Earlier this month, the Taiwan cabinet approved a special budget of NT$610 billion (about US$18.2 billion) for the purchase of top-of-the line American weaponry. And a senior Pentagon general, John Allen, is due in Taipei next month to help get the Taiwan defense forces up to speed.

Washington has insisted that under the Taiwan Relations Act – which Beijing has repeatedly criticized for violating the One China principle – the U.S. has the right to help Taiwan defend itself. And the just-released Pentagon assessment of Chinese military strength said the PLA was stockpiling record numbers of missiles along the coast to intimidate the island. Beijing, however, has maintained that, in the words of an official Xinhua news agency commentary last week, Washington has "exaggerated China's military capacity so as to provide [itself] with a pretext for selling weapons to Taiwan."

Beijing is particularly worried about what it considers to be signs that hard-line elements in the Bush administration are conniving at, if not helping Taiwan prepare its "Scorpion Strategy," President Chen's counter-attack plan should the PLA attack Taiwan. For example, Taipei would lob missiles at not only big cities, such as Shanghai, but also major infrastructure, such as the multi-billion yuan Three Gorges Dam. Significantly, while PLA officers remained largely quiet in the lead up to the Taiwan presidential polls last March, they have of late given several angry interviews to the official Chinese media. For example, General Liu Yuan, son of the late state chairman Liu Shaoqi, responded to Taipei's alleged plans to bomb the Three Gorges Dam by telling the China Youth Daily that an air strike by Taiwan "will provoke a retaliation [against Taiwan] that will ‘blot out the sky and cover up the earth'."

Party cadres and academics have cited other pieces of evidence of Washington stepping up its time-honored "anti-China encirclement and containment policy." The CCP leadership seems convinced that Washington is backing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong with the ulterior motive of turning the special administrative region into a "beachhead" for speeding up the "peaceful evolution" of China. The official media has condemned as "provocative" a series of naval and air force war games that the U.S. will hold next month with Japan, South Korea and other American allies not far from the Taiwan Strait. As a CCTV commentator pointed out last week, the fact that seven U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups will be holding maneuvers in the Pacific "produces a particularly strong impact on one's nerves."


Chinese strategists have written much about the fact that September 11 represented a turning point in recent Sino-U.S. history because from that point onwards, the global anti-American terrorist movement replaced China as Washington's real (or potential) enemy number one. And it is the services that Beijing has rendered as a partner in Washington's worldwide anti-terrorist campaign that prompted Secretary Powell to make his now-famous remark late last year that "U.S. relations with China are the best" since President Richard Nixon's ice-breaking visit to Beijing in 1972.

Until Washington's perceived about-face on Taiwan, Beijing was convinced that the Bush administration, with its forces bogged down in Iraq – and with little leverage with the Kim Jong-Il regime – would to a considerable extent be susceptible to Chinese pressure on the Taiwan front. Yet, according to Western diplomats in Beijing and Washington, the CCP leadership may have overplayed its hand.

Firstly, while the separatist steps taken by President Chen and his colleagues in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) genuinely concern Washington, it is also alarmed by aggressive moves that the PLA has adopted – or threatens to adopt – toward Taiwan. These go beyond the relentless stockpiling of missiles in Fujian and Jiangxi Provinces. A number of military hardliners have asked the Hu-Wen leadership to abandon Beijing's well-known pledge that during military conflicts, China will never be the country that uses nuclear bombs first. These hawks have argued that Beijing is justified in deploying nuclear weapons against Taiwan if the latter were to use "terrorist" tactics against the mainland – or if there were evidence to substantiate rumors that Taipei was secretly developing nuclear devices.

Moreover, the Chinese army and navy's recent power projection in the Asia-Pacific region have upset the U.S. and a number of its Asian allies. Much of this has to do with the so-called petroleum imperative, that is, Beijing's perception that China's high-speed economic development in the coming two decades hinges on sufficient supplies of energy and other resources. Despite the Hu-Wen administration's vaunted theory of the "peaceful rise of China," Beijing has taken more assertive steps to stake claims to petroleum reserves in the South China Seas and in disputed areas between China and Japan.

Equally eye-catching has been the CCP leadership's enhanced efforts to enlist the European Union as a partner in its bid to construct a "multi-polar world order," or one shorn of American domination. Diplomatic sources in Beijing said the LGFA had designed 2004 as the "Year of Europe for Chinese diplomacy." One goal is to get the EU to lift is 15-year-old ban on the expert of weapons to China, despite Washington's views that the arms embargo should stay in view of the PLA's aggressive modernization strategies. Three of China's Fourth-Generation leaders – Hu, Wen and parliamentary chief Wu Bangguo have already toured Europe this year – and more visits by top CCP cadres are in the works.

Beijing has also tried to inject new energy and momentum into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a so-called Eastern NATO that groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. At a summit meeting of SCO countries in the Uzbek capital of Taskkent this month, President Hu advocated more substantial steps to accomplish "multilateralism as well as the democratization of international relations." These are, of course, well-known code words on the need to counter the Bush administration's "unilateralist" proclivities.

Most significantly, many in Washington are unhappy with Beijing's failure to put real pressure on Pyongyang regarding the dismantling of its nuclear programs. Recently, Chinese officials cast doubts on American claims that Pyongyang has the capacity to build bombs out of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in addition to just plutonium, surprising the White House. The just-released assessment of the congressional oversight body, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, also indicated that "despite China's active role in the Six Party Talks… to date it appears unwilling to use its leverage [on North Korea] in a significant way." The bipartisan commission called on the Bush administration to beef up Taiwan's defense and even to reconsider the "one China policy."

While it is premature to predict whether Sino-U.S. relations are heading toward a downward spiral, bilateral ties remain as fragile as ever – and the good will harnessed by the two countries' somewhat haphazard cooperation in the global campaign against terrorism may not be substantial enough to prevent a return of Cold War-vintage diplomatic thinking in both Beijing and Washington. With the situation in the Taiwan Strait getting tenser by the day, the danger of a dramatic worsening of the traditionally uneasy triangular relationship between Beijing, Washington and Taipei is very real. The fallout from such a deterioration of ties could have grave consequences for war and peace not only in the Taiwan Strait, but throughout the Asia-Pacific Region.

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 The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief.

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