An Uneasy Alliance

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

For the United States, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed everything. In response to the attacks, the Bush administration revised its foreign policy orientation. At a joint session of Congress on September 20, the president enunciated a new set of principles regarding a war on international terrorism that quickly became enshrined as the “Bush Doctrine.” American media have repeatedly referred to September 11 as “the day the world changed,” drawing comparisons with December 7, 1941, as a major turning point in American history and foreign policy.

For China, however, the September 11 attacks and the American war on terrorism are not a new watershed in international politics. Nor have they required fundamentally new departures in Chinese foreign policy. Instead, the September 11 events and the American war on terrorism have presented Beijing with only the latest in a series of familiar dilemmas that it has faced with respect to the United States over the decade since the end of the Cold War.

For Beijing, the American war on international terrorism offers both opportunity and danger. On one hand, the American demand for support in the war offered Beijing an opportunity to prove itself useful to Washington on an issue vitally important to the United States. In supporting the war on terrorism, Beijing might improve relations with a new Republican administration that, in its first months, had adopted a more skeptical, harder-line policy toward China than its predecessor. On the other hand, the U.S. war on international terrorism raised the specter of unconstrained American interventionism abroad and enhanced American domination of the international system in ways that Beijing feared could have grave long-term implications for China itself.

In responding to the American war on international terrorism, Beijing must weigh two fundamental Chinese national interests against each other. First, a stable, collaborative relationship with the United States is essential to China’s ongoing modernization. Second, Beijing sees China’s security as potentially threatened by the American war on terrorism, both in terms of the precedents it sets and in terms of the expansion of the American military and political presence around China’s periphery. For these reasons, Beijing’s response to the war on terrorism has reflected both a readiness to help Washington and a wariness of long-term American purposes.

Aiding Washington

To grasp Beijing’s dilemma and to understand its ambivalent response to the U.S. war on terrorism, it is useful to step back and assess the war’s implications, first for the evolution of U.S.-China bilateral relations and then from a broad geopolitical perspective. With respect to the former, Beijing needs a stable, collaborative relationship with the United States to achieve its own long-term modernization goals. Sustained access to American markets for Chinese exports, continued investment and technology from the United States, and admission of Chinese students into American educational institutions are all essential to China’s continued economic growth and development. Setting investment from “greater China” aside, the United States has been the biggest foreign investor in China throughout the 1990s. By the late 1990s, nearly 40 percent of China’s exports were coming to this country, a figure that should not surprise American consumers, who encounter a diverse and ubiquitous range of Chinese products in stores. Thousands of students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) come to study in this country every year, and growing numbers go back to work in an increasingly market-driven Chinese economy that is able to provide them with rewarding careers. This complex and intertwined economic relationship between the United States and China has grown up since the early 1980s, and increasingly it has bound the two together in ways that have constrained and moderated other tensions in bilateral relations.

Given the size of China’s stake in a stable bilateral relationship with the United States, Beijing was naturally unsettled by the hard-line attitudes of the new Bush administration. Before the 2000 election, Bush campaign rhetoric challenged Clinton’s China policies of “building toward a strategic partnership” and called China a “strategic competitor.” After its inauguration, the administration staffed its Asia policy positions with Japan experts, signaling a general reemphasis on ties with Tokyo and a distancing from Beijing. The administration hastily arranged a visit by a ranking Japanese delegation before meeting PRC vice premier Qian Qichen in March, wishing not to receive its first Chinese guest in Washington before receiving a Japanese visitor. For the administration, the outcome of the EP3 incident in April 2001, in which a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American electronic surveillance plane off the China coast, seemed to underscore the unpleasant necessity of dealing with Beijing. But it also appeared to reinforce sentiments against China among some in the administration.

The administration’s foreign policy perspective changed following the attacks of September 11, however. This gave Beijing an opportunity to support the United States on a major international issue in ways that served its interest in strengthening a collaborative relationship with the Bush administration. And so, not surprisingly, Beijing has played up its readiness to cooperate with the United States on this score. On the day of the attacks, PRC president Jiang Zemin sent a telegram to President Bush conveying Beijing’s sympathies. On the twelfth, Jiang spoke to Bush over the telephone, condemning the attacks and expressing Beijing’s readiness to cooperate with Washington against international terrorism. On the thirteenth, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan spoke with Secretary of State Colin Powell on the telephone and conveyed the same message. Tang conveyed similar pledges in meetings with Secretary Powell, Vice President Cheney, and President Bush during a September 20–21 visit to Washington. In subsequent summit meetings with President Bush—at the APEC summit in Shanghai last October and at the working summit in Beijing last February—Jiang Zemin renewed pledges of cooperation with Washington against terrorism. On both occasions, Jiang stated that China was ready to establish “a medium- and long-term mechanism for cooperation against terrorism” with the United States.

China also took concrete action. In U.N. Security Council sessions, Beijing supported all resolutions relevant to the war in Afghanistan. It also pressed Pakistan, its traditional ally in South Asia and the key country in America’s war in Afghanistan, to collaborate with Washington. It has shared intelligence with Washington regarding Islamic fundamentalists, and it has assisted in tracking financial networks that support Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. During the war in Afghanistan, it closed its border with Afghanistan to inhibit escape by members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda into China. Reportedly, it also promised that American military aircraft could land in western Chinese airfields under emergency circumstances.

For this support, the Bush administration has more than once expressed gratitude to Beijing and appeared to revise its public posture toward Beijing. President Bush twice publicly thanked Beijing for its cooperation. Administration officials also remarked in the fall of 2001 that there would be no more talk of China as a “strategic competitor.”

In significant ways, therefore, the war on terrorism has helped Beijing to stabilize a bilateral relationship that faced new uncertainties through the first months of the Bush administration. The resulting degree of harmony in U.S.-PRC relations should not be overstated—frictions over a broad range of issues persist, especially over the Taiwan question. But, arguably, the framework through which the Bush administration views Beijing and the relative priorities in its China policy agenda have been transformed as a result of the war on terrorism.

Constraining Washington

For Beijing, the welcome moderating impact on U.S.-China bilateral relations of the American war on terrorism must be balanced against the geo-political significance of the war, which presents Beijing with new anxieties.

Strategically, because the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States as the sole superpower, China has been wary of American power predominating in the international system. No country even approaches the overwhelming military power, economic strength, and cultural influence the United States possesses in the post–Cold War world. (How long the United States will sustain this predominance is widely debated in China, as everywhere else.)

In some respects, this has not been altogether bad from Beijing’s perspective. Chinese leaders declare routinely that China needs a prolonged period of international peace and stability to pursue economic reform and development at home. American power helps stabilize the international system, and, to that extent, American power is useful to Beijing.

But Beijing also worries about American domination— “hegemony”—in the international system. Beijing does not want to see the United States play an unconstrained police role, intervening in international crises as a pretext to reshape the international system toward its own ends or in ways that establish precedents for how the United States might deal with China itself.

Historically, since the PRC’s founding in 1949, Beijing has addressed a bipolar Cold War geopolitical setting by balancing the weaker superpower against the stronger. In the 1950s, Beijing balanced American power by allying with a weaker but rising Soviet Union. In the 1960s, as the USSR achieved strategic parity with the United States, Beijing backed away from Moscow and pursued a “dual adversary” posture, confronting both superpowers at once. In the 1970s, as American power appeared to sag and as Soviet power appeared still on the rise, Beijing aligned with the United States against the USSR in a “strategic triangle.” In the 1980s, as the USSR went into decline and the United States reasserted itself, Beijing tried to balance its superpower relationships, distancing itself from Washington at the strategic level—though not in bilateral relations—while improving relations with Moscow.

The dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the eclipse of Russian power has meant that there is no credible superpower with which Beijing can align to balance overwhelming American power. In the absence of a superpower counterweight to the United States, Beijing throughout the 1990s had to resort to diluting what it characterizes as American hegemonism in the international order through the following approaches:

• It has sought strategic partners among the larger countries in the international system that share an interest in promoting “multipolarity” (several centers of power) in the international system and that collectively might limit the capacity of the United States to dominate the international system unilaterally. For example, since 1997 Beijing has concluded strategic partnerships with Russia, France, Brazil, and other countries, declaring a common interest in the multipolarization of the international order.

• Beijing also became a true believer in the role of the United Nations. Throughout the 1990s, Beijing insisted that international crises in which the United States might intervene be addressed through the United Nations and its Security Council, where Beijing could shape the international response in ways that inhibited U.S. unilateralism and constrained its dominance in the international system.

And so, throughout the 1990s, Beijing watched American responses to international crises with the same skepticism and ambivalence that have characterized its response to the present war on terrorism. Beijing—nervous about President George H.W. Bush’s comments on a “new world order” in 1990—watched the U.S. response to the 1990–1991 Gulf crisis anxiously for the precedents it would set for an American-defined post–Cold War international order. In that instance, Beijing saw the dilemma worked out in a manner that it ultimately went along with. The U.S.-led coalition to evict Iraq from Kuwait proceeded under U.N. Security Council auspices, giving Beijing an opportunity to improve relations with Washington that had become strained over the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. In contrast, Beijing was alarmed by the American-led intervention in Kosovo in 1999, not just because U.S. forces bombed the PRC embassy in Belgrade but because the United States intervened without the umbrella of U.N. leadership.

From this perspective, the American war on terrorism is yet another instance in which the United States has exercised its overwhelming military power to intervene in other countries, sometimes overriding principles of nation-state sovereignty in the name of humanitarian pretexts and sometimes outside the institutional constraints of the United Nations system. Beijing does not reject the merits of the U.S. case for intervening in Afghanistan. But it does resist a war on terrorism that is defined in general, imprecise ways that give Washington maximum latitude in extending the war, whether to an “axis of evil” of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—whose connection to the September 11 attacks has yet to be demonstrated—or to Somalia, Yemen, the Sudan, and other potential targets.

What worries Beijing specifically is the precedent the war may supply for unconstrained American use of military power—potentially against China itself. If the United States can bomb Serbia over humanitarian principles, Beijing wonders, what prevents the United States from extending the same logic to justify intervening in Tibet or Taiwan?

From this longer perspective, Beijing’s approach to the American war on terrorism at a geopolitical level is predictable, resorting to now familiar tactics: first, promoting multipolarity among other major capitals and, second, insisting that prosecution of the war on terrorism proceed under the umbrella of the U.N. Security Council. Since the beginning of the war on terrorism, Beijing has made a show of consulting with Moscow, the Europeans, Tokyo, and even New Delhi to underscore common interests in not having the war become an unconstrained American show. At the same time, its public statements have insistently emphasized the necessity of the war on terrorism proceeding under the aegis of the U.N. Security Council.

Recently, for example, in a major foreign policy presentation on April 10, during a high-profile visit to Berlin, Jiang Zemin strongly underscored multipolarization as an essential element in international stability and advised that “no country or force” can address international crises “single-handedly.” With respect to international terrorism, Jiang stated: “It is necessary to abide by the goals and principles of the U.N. charter and universally recognized norms of international relations and to bring into full play the role of the United Nations and its Security Council. . . . No political agenda that has an impact on world and regional stability and development should be promoted in the name of counterterrorism.”

Extirpating Terrorism or Encircling China?

Beijing also worries about the American war on terrorism bearing directly on China’s security. For much of the 1990s, Chinese security analysts and presumably China’s top leaders debated over exactly what Washington’s policy toward China actually is. Some argued that Washington’s policy toward China is essentially one of engagement, a U.S. policy that, from Beijing’s perspective, allows a collaborative economic relationship and that does not raise immediate security concerns. That view has appeared dominant and has been consistently reflected in Beijing’s official line.

Others in Beijing, however, argued that Washington talks engagement with China but actually practices a policy of containment that seeks to blunt China’s rise in the international system, weaken it economically, and ultimately bring about a change of regime. Exponents of this view point to a broad range of steps that Washington has pursued, under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, as evidence that the United States has been systematically building a system of encirclement around China, as it did in the 1950s. Specifically, they point to

• American steps to enhance guidelines implementing the 1960 U.S.-Japan security alliance, expanding its scope potentially to include Taiwan and expanding the role of Japanese military forces

• Efforts to upgrade Washington’s quasi-official relationship with Taipei

• Expanded U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and potential incorporation of Taiwan into a theater missile defense system in the region

• Washington’s normalization of relations with Hanoi in 1995

• Washington’s tilt toward India in 1998

• The Bush administration’s planned shift of American armed forces from Europe to Asia and the Pacific

Exponents of this view in Beijing place these steps in a context of persisting American pressures over human rights and other issues and other, broader American actions that have implications for Chinese security. Among the latter, the most worrisome is the U.S. effort to develop and deploy ballistic missile defenses—efforts that, if successful, will render even more vulnerable the PRC’s small, antiquated nuclear deterrent.

The American war on international terrorism gives new ammunition to both sides of this Chinese policy debate. On one hand, those who have argued that Washington has pursued a policy of engagement toward China may now argue that the American priorities of the war on terrorism require cooperation with China. Therefore, the war reinforces the logic of engagement, as the Bush administration’s shift in China policy has shown. Those on the other side may argue that Washington is using the war on terrorism to acquire enduring military, strategic, and political assets in a longer-term effort to encircle China. Thus they suggest that the war on terrorism has allowed the United States to acquire permanent military bases in Central Asia, where previously it had none. The war has allowed Washington to renew its military presence in the Philippines, to restore military ties with and resume arms sales to India, and to reopen military ties in Indonesia. The war has made it possible for Washington to encourage an expanded role for the Japanese navy—now playing a support role in the Indian Ocean—far beyond its previously limited sphere of operations. Finally, the war has made it possible for the Bush administration to gain political support at home for a mammoth increase in defense spending that will fund far more than the costs of suppressing international terrorism.

In short, the American war on terrorism has added fuel to a decade-long Chinese debate about the United States and its foreign policy goals. The debate is not likely to be resolved easily or soon, and it will complicate Beijing’s response to new American efforts to counter international terrorism.

Implications for American Policy

Beijing’s ambivalent response to the American war on international terrorism has been shaped by the divergent Chinese interests it affects. In that regard, there is a broad parallel with the manner in which Moscow has responded to the American effort. Both Beijing and Moscow have seen useful opportunities to cooperate with Washington in ways that enhance their bilateral relationship with the new Bush administration. Beyond that, each also has seen an opportunity to bend the American agenda to its own purposes in suppressing ethnic and religious unrest at home in the name of opposing terrorism—in Beijing’s case, Muslim agitation and Turkish separatism in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, and in Moscow’s, Chechen separatist violence.

At the same time, the support for the war in both Beijing and Moscow has been tempered by hard strategic and security interests. Both have been unsettled by U.S. military and political inroads into Central Asia; in the 1990s both had worked to establish a relationship of pragmatic accommodation with the new Central Asian republics. More broadly, Beijing and Moscow share similar misgivings about the strategic implications of an American war on international terrorism of undefined scope and especially about its future targets.

Because the war on terrorism puts in opposition fundamental economic and security interests in the foreign policy agendas of both Beijing and Moscow, there are strong limits on how far each has been and will be ready to support it. Because of the stake each has in good relations with Washington, however, there are also comparably strong limits on how far each will be ready to try to constrain the American effort, separately and in concert. For Beijing, and perhaps Moscow, too, ambivalence may be the best Washington can hope for.