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Beijing's reaction to East Asia's changing alliances
Willy Lam
8/10/2004

If China had sufficient economic and military prowess, there seems little doubt the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership would "go teach the U.S. a lesson" for the wrongs it had allegedly inflicted upon on the country. Previous CCP administrations had used similar clauses of indignation – and the assertion of a moral high ground based on self-defense and the preservation of sovereign rights – when they went to war with nations including India, Russia and Vietnam. And while the Chinese party and military leadership may for the time being be deterred by America's superpower status from trying out something rash, tension between China on the one hand, and the U.S. and many Asian countries on the other, is expected to rise in the foreseeable future.

Much has been written about how the Taiwan issue – particularly Beijing's perception that Washington is providing ever more substantial military and diplomatic backing to the separatist President Chen Shui-bian government – has contributed to the marked deterioration in Sino-U.S. ties. Yet the leadership under President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and ex-president Jiang Zemin actually sees China's national and geopolitical security as being simultaneously undermined on different fronts. And while many of China's worst fears are Taiwan-related, tension over the Strait is but a symptom and manifestation of the much more fundamental clash between the world's only superpower and would-be superpower. Beijing is also perturbed by the fact that its so-called "peaceful rise" has raised such a high level of alarm in many Asian capitals that the latter have become more willing to abet Washington's time-honored "anti-China containment policy."

First and foremost is the party and military leaderships' belief that Washington is re-orienting its troop strength and power projection from Europe and the Middle East to the Far East. The official China News Service (CNS) pointed out last week that "the focus and emphasis of America's forces have shifted to East Asia" with the eventual goal of "tackling" China. The on-going Operation Summer Pulse – an unprecedented large-scale series of naval and air exercises held by the U.S. and its allies throughout the Pacific – is seen as the first salvo in Pentagon's go-east game plan, which was originally conceived in early 2001. Chinese strategists are convinced that while the war on terrorism has delayed this military and geo-political readjustment, the George W. Bush administration is eager to pick up the threads now that Iraqi-related pressure on the U.S. has waned to some extent.

America's apparent efforts to turn Taiwan into an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" serves the overall goal of what the China Daily recently called "maintaining Asia-Pacific stability under U.S. domination." The CNS quoted an article in Wide Angle, a Chinese-affiliated Hong Kong magazine, which asserted that the U.S. and Taiwan had "formed a surreptitious military alliance." The publication claimed that on-going military drills in Taiwan were "co-directed" by Taiwan officers and U.S. advisors – and that "the possibilities of the U.S. re-opening bases in Taiwan have increased." Moreover, Beijing anticipates formal military alliances between the U.S. and traditional American allies such as Japan, Australia and the Philippines to become much stronger in the coming years.

At the same time, Beijing is disturbed by a recent spate of disputes with its Asian neighbors. This is despite the fact that the Hu-Wen leadership has put even more emphasis than its predecessors on implementing a "good-neighborly policy." Moreover, Beijing's willingness to open more of its market to Asia, as well as pro-active steps it has taken to cement formal free-trade schemes with ASEAN and other Asian countries, has played up China's "benevolent elephant" image in the entire region.

The on-going crisis in Sino-Singaporean ties, however, is just one instance of the malaise affecting overall China-Asian relationship. Again, Taiwan seems to be the bone of contention. Beijing has gone ballistic over prime minister-designate Lee Hsien-loong's "private visit" to Taipei earlier this month. This was the first time that a senior cabinet member of a country that does not recognize Taiwan had paid a visit to China's "renegade province." The official International Herald Leader noted that Lee's visit could set off a "domino effect," meaning other Asian countries might follow suit. And Tsinghua University international affairs expert Yan Xuetong has accused the Singapore government of "using ‘Taiwan independence' to blackmail and to rein in China."

But why do Singapore and quite a few other Asian countries, which are increasingly dependent on fat trade surpluses with China, dare to play the Taiwan card against the Middle Kingdom? One explanation is the fear that if Beijing were to use the military option against Taiwan, all of Asia would suffer grave economic and military collateral damages. Yet a much more fundamental factor is growing fears on the part of China's neighbors about a fast-rising quasi-superpower that seems bent on monopolizing manufacturing, trade, and particularly energy resources.

Even as China's energy crunch becomes more pronounced – and with crude prices tipped to stay high in the foreseeable future – Beijing's cadres, diplomats, and generals have gone about all guns blazing buttressing the country's "petroleum security." Unfortunately for China's neighbors, this includes asserting sovereignty rights over oil and gas supplies buried under islands and continental shelves that are claimed by two or more countries. Not too long ago, Beijing was eager to underscore its "peaceful rise" commitment by agreeing, for example, to set aside territorial disputes with Japan and ASEAN countries. Since early this year, however, Beijing has waged an ugly war of words with Tokyo over oil rights in the East China Sea. Bitter diplomatic exchanges have taken place since the spring between China and other claimants to the Spratly Islands including Vietnam and the Philippines.

For oil or other reasons, many Asian countries won't be unhappy to see the U.S. beefing up its military profile in the Pacific region. Not just full-fledged American allies such as Japan, but countries like Singapore – which has been gravitating toward China since the late 1990s – are willing to provide more naval and air bases for American troops. And it was Singapore's apparent support of U.S. naval patrol of the Strait of Malacca earlier this year – through which more than three-quarters of China's oil import passes – that first infuriated the Chinese leadership. (For the past decades, only forces from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can regulate security and related matters in the narrow Strait.)

Of course, the convoluted relationships among China, Taiwan, the U.S. and Asia in general may yet improve if a new page can be turned in the ties of the two main players: China and the U.S. However, the results of perhaps one of the last few Sino-American high-level exchanges before U.S. presidential polls in November – Condoleezza Rice's fence-mending mission to Beijing earlier this month – have been disappointing. And an assessment of the Rice trip says much about whether Sino-U.S. and Sino-Asian ties are heading toward a vicious cycle.

According to diplomatic sources, the National Security Adviser addressed three main points during her meetings with President Hu Jintao and ex-president Jiang Zemin. Firstly, Rice tried to reassure the CCP leadership that there was no substance to allegations about Washington spearheading a containment policy against China. On the issue of North Korea, she expressed frustration with the fact that Beijing had not put enough pressure on the Kim Jong-Il regime to dismantle weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. side also voiced disappointment at Beijing's apparent failure to work closely together with the American team during the Six-Party Talks last month. Lastly, on the Iraqi issue, Rice indicated Washington would be appreciative of Beijing using its clout with the Middle East and other Muslim nations to help ensure the viability of the new Baghdad administration as well as stability in the war-torn country.

It is understood that the Beijing leadership refused to make any tangible commitments on either the North Korean or the Iraqi issue – and that privately, the senior cadres dismissed Rice's expression of goodwill as being based on the White House's desire that "Beijing doesn't rock the boat or make more trouble" in the run-up to the November U.S. elections. A party source familiar with Beijing's American policy said in their separate meetings with Rice, Jiang and Hu concentrated their firepower on the Taiwan question – as well as Washington's alleged anti-China encirclement conspiracy. "The central authorities have characterized talks with Rice as a ‘showdown over Taiwan'," the source said. "The leaders told Rice frankly that U.S. policy toward Taiwan would immensely raise the possibility of war in the Taiwan Strait, into which America would inevitably be dragged." He added Jiang and Hu stressed that while China did not want a military conflict of any scale with the U.S., the CCP leadership would not be cowed by American might – and that it would not acquiesce in any more U.S.-aided steps taken by the Chen administration toward independence.

Yet one more tricky element in Beijing's foreign affairs in general and relations with the U.S. in particular is the growing diplomatic role that ex-president Jiang Zemin is playing. Political sources in Beijing say it is now certain that the 78-year-old veteran will stay as Central Military Commission Chairman until the 17th CCP Congress in late 2007. Since early this year, Jiang has not only promoted a number of his protégés to senior positions in the People's Liberation Army but also laid down important instructions on relations with Taiwan and the U.S. This is despite the fact that the primary policy-making role should go to President Hu, who heads the party's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs and Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs.

For example, the Chinese-run Hong Kong daily, Wen Wei Po, last week quoted Jiang as saying in a recent CMC meeting that Beijing should lay down a "time-table" of up to 20 years for national reunification. Jiang also repeated what the Chinese leadership had told top U.S. officials the past few months: "China has no desire to get into direct conflict with America; but if foreign powers are to interfere with and support Taiwan independence, we can only resort to a military resolution." Analysts say with the intensification of the nearly two-year-old power struggle between the so-called Hu-Wen faction and the Jiang-led Shanghai Clique, members of either camp have a tendency to adopt hawkish rhetoric and action to pre-empt criticisms of being soft on defending national sovereignty.

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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