Gathering Places


Wednesday, October 17, 2001


Terrorist threat may
launch new U.S.-China
strategic relationship

President Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin have an opportunity to lay the foundation for a new, constructive strategic relationship when they meet along the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' meeting in Shanghai this weekend. Their common concern about international terrorism provides a basis for cooperation.

China, however, must be prepared to go beyond tokenism and lay out concrete measures for supporting the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaign. In addition, both leaders must demonstrate some give and take in addressing other issues that have plagued bilateral relations.

The end of the Cold War deflated much of the rationale behind Sino-U.S. cooperation, just as the 1989 Chinese crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square ended America's growing fascination with all things Chinese.

Subsequent attempts to build "a constructive strategic partnership" during the Clinton administration were more style than substance, as was painfully revealed by Beijing's response to the U.S. accidental bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade.

The collision between an American EP-3 reconnaissance plane and Chinese jet fighter in April and the Bush administration's decision to pursue missile defense were just two of many recent points of contention that further degraded Sino-U.S. relations.

Given this history, prospects for genuine cooperation with Beijing on strategic issues seemed slim before Sept. 11. The war on terrorism, however, presents Washington and Beijing with a common objective upon which to build strategic cooperation, given China's concerns about terrorism in its western regions (in part supported by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network).

Washington sees support for its war on terrorism as the "litmus test" for future cooperation with the United States. Thus far, Beijing has passed, but just barely. China joined the rest of the international community in condemning the Sept. 11 attacks and acknowledged that the U.S. military response was appropriate, but with three caveats: A military response should be directed at those proven to be guilty, should avoid civilian casualties (always a U.S. objective), and be preceded by "consultations" with the United Nations.

While Washington was likely not thrilled to have President Jiang calling other U.N. Security Council members to reinforce these preconditions, they were not particularly onerous.

On the positive side, Beijing sent a team of counterterrorist experts to Washington to explore ways the two sides could cooperate amid signs that China was willing to share "useful intelligence" with Washington. China has also been supportive (or at least not obstructionist) regarding the continuing military campaign.

What was most troubling about China's response to 9-11 was its initial attempt to create linkages between Chinese support for the United States with American support for China's fight against "terrorism and separatism," which seemed to imply a quid pro quo under which the United States would lessen its support for Taiwan, the island over which China claims sovereignty but which remains separate. The Taiwan link was not pursued and would no doubt have been rejected by Washington.

The real moment of truth in redefining Sino-U.S. relations should come when Presidents Bush and Jiang meet in Shanghai. The assembled APEC leaders are expected to issue a joint declaration condemning terror but the question is how supportive Jiang will be, especially if there is talk on expanding the war beyond Afghanistan.

Expressions of "understanding" by Bush regarding China's crackdown on "terrorist elements" in western China could go a long way in assuring more enthusiastic support by Jiang for America's war. A failure of Jiang to go beyond his previous caveats will likely scuttle any hopes for deeper strategic cooperation.

On the issue of Taiwan, the best one can hope for is an agreement to continue to agree to disagree. Bush can be expected to underscore Washington's "one China" policy and to encourage cross-Strait dialogue and a peaceful solution.

Another key to determining whether new Sino-U.S. relations are possible will be found in Chinese statements regarding missile defense. If Beijing is wise enough to accept assurances from Bush that Washington is committed to a limited system that will not put China's nuclear deterrent at risk and then expresses willingness to enter into a dialogue on security concerns, this could open the door for the "normal, constructive, and healthy" relations.

The key question: Will Bush and Jiang be willing to take the next step forward, now that Sept. 11 has given them an opening?

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum, a research institute here affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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