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Beijing pushes for gains after Bush re-election
Willy Lam
12/20/2004

Beijing has acted swiftly to put pressure on a newly re-elected President Bush on the key fronts of Taiwan and the Middle East, particularly Iran. President Hu Jintao, who heads China's foreign policy, wants Washington to make more concessions on Taiwan during their upcoming "mini-summit" in Chile later this month. In the meantime, Beijing has also served warnings that the U.S. should not take "unilateralist" actions against Iran.

In his congratulatory message to Bush the day after the U.S. election, President Hu played up the "significant progress in cooperation" between the two countries, adding that Beijing was willing to "further promote the development of constructive cooperative [bilateral] relations." However, it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA), which is headed by Hu, harbors deep suspicions about Bush's long-standing support for Taiwan. The LGFA, which met in a special session last week to discuss bilateral ties during Bush's second term, also expressed fears that Bush and his neo-conservative aides, having been emboldened by a strong popular mandate, might undertake tougher "unilateralist" maneuvers against potential enemy states such as Iran, Syria and North Korea.

On the Taiwan front, President Hu lost no time in indicating that Beijing would exert further pressure on Washington to rein in the separatist gambit of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian. Senior Chinese diplomats last Friday told the international media that Hu would focus on the Taiwan question when he and Bush hold a mini-summit on the sidelines of the APEC meeting of heads of state in Chile later this month. Vice-Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong, who looks after U.S. affairs, said Hu would impress upon Bush the fact that the "escalating steps toward independence taken by Chen Shui-bian" had become "more serious and dangerous" - and that the U.S. must do more to rein in Chen's pro-independence moves.

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing were surprised by the speed with which Beijing had started aggressive lobbying of the Bush White House. They said the CCP leadership was relatively happy with the apparent concession - although just at the rhetorical level - made by Secretary of State Colin Powell while in Beijing last month. Powell surprised even American observers by pointing out for the first time that Taiwan was not an independent state with full sovereign powers. The diplomatic analysts said the Hu leadership was confident that with more effective arm-twisting, Bush in his second term might do more for China on the Taiwan situation.

Chinese sources said Beijing would be using mainly two cards - anti-terrorism and the vast China market - to secure U.S. cooperation on the Taiwan issue. The sources said despite the CCP leadership's worries about Bush's aggressive foreign policy - including a perceived "anti-China containment strategy" - Beijing could take heart from the fact that Washington needed China's cooperation in its war on terrorism. The sources pointed out that in his second term, Bush would want Chinese help in areas including the North Korean nuclear crisis. At the Chile summit with Bush, Hu will likely pledge that Beijing would continue to play a proactive role in nudging Pyongyang to rejoin the stalled six-party talks on the North Korean imbroglio. However, it is likely that Hu will admonish Bush to satisfy Pyongyang's demand for a formal guarantee of non-aggression from the U.S. government.

At the same time, given the fast-growing Chinese market, President Hu and his diplomats are expected to use the "business card" to lobby the American corporate community - which is close to the Republican Party - on the need to address Chinese sensitivities about diplomatic and reunification issues. In this respect, Beijing would definitely prefer Bush - rather than Democratic Party challenger John Kerry - in the White House. Traditionally, the Republican Party is more amenable to pressure from the business community and Bush has for the past three years largely displayed flexibility on trade disputes with China. And U.S. corporations from Boeing to Dell computers are becoming increasingly dependent on the China market for future growth.

The next major initiative that the LGFA has taken is to prevent the Bush White House from further pushing its "unilateralist" and "neo-imperialist" policies in the Middle East, where China has substantial vested interests. The Hu Jintao leadership thinks that Bush's next target for possible pre-emptive action is Iran, which is suspected by Washington to have been surreptitiously developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) behind the fašade of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Moreover, Iranian agents have reportedly infiltrated Iraq and wrecked havoc on U.S. and British forces stationed there. The LGFA has concluded there is a good possibility that Bush may next target Iran either with or without the blessings of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

This thinking was behind the hastily arranged trip that Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing took to Tehran last weekend. Li reiterated China's objection to the Iranian issue being referred to the UNSC. Chinese officials have also hinted that Beijing will use its veto should the Security Council discuss punitive actions against Tehran. Beijing has instead backed negotiations between Tehran and EU countries for the suspension of Iran's production of enriched uranium. Chinese diplomats, however, have privately admitted that should Washington decide to use military force against Iran while bypassing the UNSC, there is nothing much China can do. But Beijing is determined to persuade Britain and Australia - and other possible members of a new "coalition of the willing" under Washington's direction - not to follow the lead of the U.S. this time.

Another reason Beijing is getting nervous about Iran is the petroleum issue. The state oil giant Sinopec last month signed a $70 billion oil and gas deal with Iran for supplies of crude and liquefied natural gas to China in the coming three decades. Equally significant is the Beijing leadership's fear that further U.S. "meddling" in the Middle East would result in another spike in oil prices. China, which is consuming some 5.5 million barrels of oil a day, has already been badly hurt by the surge in crude prices this year. Quite a few hawkish strategists in Beijing have even advanced the conspiracy theory that the Bush White House wants to hit the China economy by engineering a hike in oil and gas prices.

Referring to the possibility that Bush might again start military action in the Middle East, President Hu reportedly said at the LGFA meeting last week that China "must do all it can to ensure a favorable international climate for its economic development." For Hu's strategists, a repeat of the Iraqi experience in another Middle East country would represent a direct threat to China's delicate economic and energy security.

For the moment, Beijing thinks that North Korea is not Washington's top priority - and therefore, relatively speaking, the Hu leadership has not yet entered crisis mode with regard to their Stalinist neighbor. Hu and the LGFA think that it will take a considerable length of time before the U.S. can stabilize the chaotic situation in Iraq even assuming that elections there can be held according to schedule in January. Moreover, according to Chinese assessment, Bush's advisers have asked the U.S. President to settle problems in the Middle East - notably Iran and Syria - before turning to East Asia in a big way.

As for Bush's supposed "anti-China containment policy," Hu and his colleagues are under no illusion that there will be any change during the U.S. leader's second term. As former vice-premier Qian Qichen noted in his recent article in China Daily, the Bush Doctrine would have dangerous consequences for China because it meant a misguided pursuit of the "American empire." Qian's views represented mainstream Chinese thinking. And after assuming the position of Chairman of the Central Military Commission in September, Hu as well as his civilian and military advisers are convinced that a top priority is to thwart efforts by the U.S. to encircle China through beefed-up military alliances with key Asian allies including Japan and Australia. The LGFA and intelligence departments are keeping a particularly close watch on the U.S. stationing of more aircraft carriers and jet fighters in places including Hawaii, Guam and Okinawa.

The Hu leadership is also expected to devote more resources to forming quasi-alliances and "strategic partnerships" with key countries and blocs to counterbalance American preponderance. Relations with the European Union and Russia will be key to Hu's game plan. Despite the rising Euro, Beijing is committed to buying a fairly large amount and variety of especially hi-tech products and know-how from "strategic partners" such as France and Germany. During the recent visit to Beijing by President Vladimir Putin, Hu agreed to invest more in infrastructure projects in Russia. The Chinese side also made sizeable concessions regarding the final agreement on the delineation of the Sino-Russian boundary.

Hu's forthcoming trip to Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Cuba is also important because it represents Beijing's attempts to build up its influence right in America's backyard. More Chinese economic and technological aid to countries including Argentina, Chile and Cuba is expected to be announced. The Hu presidency is particularly interested in establishing a full-scale strategic partnership with Brazil, whose bid to acquire a permanent UNSC seat has received China's backing. At the same time, Beijing has boosted its ties with Venezuela, a major oil producer as well as a harsh critic of Bush-style "unilteralism." Hu and his aides evidently believe that new diplomatic inroads which China has made in the EU, Latin America and Africa will go some way toward neutralizing the mischief and threat that a supposedly hawkish Bush second term would engender.

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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