Commentary: Bush's Tricky High-Wire Act

For weeks, the new Bush Administration has pursued a tough rhetorical line against China, publicly jabbing Beijing for suppressing domestic dissent, selling advanced technology to Iraq, and threatening Taiwan. All the while, Chinese and U.S. negotiators intent on finalizing China's entry into the World Trade Organization struggled to narrow their remaining differences, hoping to pave the way for an April powwow that would seal China's entry into the elite club of trading nations.

This two-layered policy of pursuing a harder line against China's authoritarian regime while knitting stronger trade ties is, to put it mildly, a tricky business. What's still unclear is whether a domestically focused George W. Bush and his crew of recycled cold warriors have what it takes to make it work.

An early test has been provided by the freak collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter over the South China Sea. Bush's advisers first tried quiet diplomacy to win the U.S. flight crew's freedom. Only after Beijing rebuffed the overtures did a subdued Bush weigh in personally--dramatically upping the stakes. Publicly, the approach has been carefully modulated, despite growing anger inside the Administration. "The longer this drags out, the higher our concern and frustration level," says a senior U.S. official.

So what's the lesson of the China crunch? Assuming that Beijing's rulers relent after they milk the episode for domestic political impact, it's this: Despite the President's desire to stand tall in the face of a crisis, there may be limits on how many times the Bushies can poke a sharp stick at China, all the while professing that improved economic ties are divorced from a deteriorating political climate.

As a result, U.S.-Chinese relations are at low ebb. Jiang Zemin's government is livid over Administration plans to speed deployment of an antimissile shield and to beef up Taiwan's defenses. Their anger--and growing nationalist clamor--helped forge China's hard-line response to the spy-plane saga. More problems are on the way. As an anti-China backlash builds in the U.S., labor and human-rights activists might unite with GOP superhawks and social conservatives in a new coalition of convenience. Their goal is to derail China's normal-trade-relations status, up for renewal in June. Even if Bush invests his limited political capital to fend off that challenge, conservatives will press him to sell Taiwan destroyers equipped with advanced Aegis radar. Beijing bluntly warns that could spark a military response. The climate "is going to get worse before it gets better," predicts Robert A. Manning, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This nosedive in relations is occurring before Bush has his Asia hands in place and fleshes out his still-sketchy blueprint for the region. The White House only sent the nomination of James A. Kelly as Assistant Secretary of State for Asia to the Senate on Apr. 3, in the midst of the spy-plane flap. The Administration is loaded with Asia experts such as Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, and National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Torkel L. Patterson, but few real China hands. Stephen J. Yates, a Heritage Foundation China expert, isn't slated to join Dick Cheney's staff until Apr. 6. Many aides, including Armitage, Kelly, Patterson, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, are former military men.

NO-FAULT EXIT? The group is thin and by no means united ideologically. During the campaign, hard-line advisers such as Wolfowitz, Armitage, and Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, signed a letter calling for an explicit statement that the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense if China attacked. But soon after the missive was penned, Bush--prompted by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice--disowned the position, drawing disapproving clucks from the Republican right wing. But in the current dustup, the troops seemed to be lined up as the White House sought an end to the crisis. And expected battles between Defense and State may be muted now that Armitage, who is close to Wolfowitz, is at the State Department.

Not only has the Administration chosen to slowly ratchet up the President's demands for an end to the crisis, but it has shown a willingness to be flexible in its response as new details of the accident emerge. Powell's first reaction was to insist the U.S. had nothing to apologize for. But with reports that the U.S. aircraft may have been closer to the mainland than initially reported, Powell on Apr. 4 called the bump in the sky "a tragic accident" rather than a provocation.

This measured reaction is welcome news to U.S. exporters, who expect the pro-trade Bush to throw open the doors to the lucrative China market. "My one criticism of Bush so far is his inflexibility," sighs one outside Presidential adviser with strong business ties. "Ultimately, the aim of policy is to let our stuff into China. Bush could apologize [for the death of the Chinese pilot], say this was no one's fault, and get on with it."

A no-fault exit from the crisis would obviously please U.S. multinationals. And it has allure for the Bush team. Because at bottom, the White House crew still believes it can wield a hard-edged policy against Beijing without jeopardizing trade relations. To Bush and his advisers, free trade has the air of a religion, convinced as they are that expanding commerce will slowly infect China's culture with the germ of freedom.

Yet even as the Administration waits for the market to work its magic, Bush's military planners believe that U.S. defense strategy should focus primarily on Asia rather than Europe as the next potential battle theater. That means the White House wants Japan to shoulder more responsibility for regional defense. Armitage has argued for deeper military ties with Japan, including more reliance on facilities sharing and joint training exercises. He wants Tokyo to lift its prohibition on collective self-defense--a move the Japanese Diet is mulling. Japan's economic woes may gum up Armitage's plans, but he hopes Tokyo will transform its military into a more effective force, if only to give China's generals something to think about.

For China, which is intent on building its preeminence in Asia, all of this is anathema. Its goal seems to be nothing less than to replace the U.S. as the dominating force to contend with in East Asia. And given longstanding enmity between Beijing and Tokyo, a stronger Japanese military is the last thing Beijing wants to see. "They want us out of there and an unarmed, neutral Japan, but they're not going to get that," says Asian policy analyst Richard H. Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

So where does all that leave U.S. China policy? In the near term, relations are likely to hit bottom, then rebound as both sides step back from the brink. Bush may help ease the sting by ignoring congressional objections and backing Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics. And China may soon realize that, at some point, matching belligerence with belligerence threatens trade ties essential to modernizing hidebound state enterprises and improving living standards. "China is dependent on the U.S. and Taiwan for continued economic prosperity," says James R. Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to China. An eminently rational statement, to be sure. But unless the standoff ends with a graceful exit for both sides, no one knows whether reason will carry the day.

By Stan Crock

With Lee Walczak in Washington, Dexter Roberts in Beijing, and bureau reports

— With assistance by Lee Walczak, and Dexter Roberts

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