Sea Change on China

The Bush team takes a hard line

Two years ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld--then chairman of Gilead Sciences Inc. (GILD )--visited a museum in Beijing set up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Communist takeover of China. On the archway at the entrance, Mao Zedong was praised as China's great revolutionary. The late Deng Xiaoping was hailed as the reformer. And current President Jiang Zemin was dubbed the unifier. Inside, Rumsfeld found one exhibit to be particularly jarring. In a cavernous room devoted to Taiwan, a mural 30 feet long and 15 feet high depicted the Chinese military attacking the island with missiles, ships, submarines, and tanks. Chinese military officials told Rumsfeld and others in his group that while Beijing hopes to peacefully return Taiwan to the motherland, it must prepare its people for possible war.

To Rumsfeld, the exhibit helped drive home a conviction shared by several of the conservatives now running Bush Administration foreign policy: that Washington has been far too complacent about China's intent to seize Taiwan by force, a conflict that surely would involve the U.S. As hard-liners see it, policymakers for too long have brushed aside mounting evidence, from warmongering essays in Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) journals to cocky statements to U.S. visitors by Beijing officials, that China doubts America's resolve to risk its soldiers and commerce to fight for Taiwan. Clinton Administration talk of treating Beijing as a "partner" and repeated endorsement of a "one China" policy, they felt, boosted Beijing's confidence. "History shows that weakness is provocative," Rumsfeld said in his Senate confirmation hearing.

DIPLOMATIC DIGS. These deep suspicions of China are now translating into a sea change in U.S. policy. Gone is the decades-long stance of "strategic ambiguity" over whether the U.S. would intervene if China invaded Taiwan without provocation. At the same time, Washington is trying to lure other Asian powers to join its missile defense plan--a strategy that seems aimed at hemming in China and neutralizing its small nuclear arsenal. In Tokyo, U.S. officials are talking with new Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi about making Japan the center of America's security strategy for Asia. Then there are the diplomatic digs that have come almost daily since China's Apr. 12 release of the EP-3 spy-plane crew. They include the Defense Dept. review of contacts with China's military, Bush's attack on Beijing's religious repression, and the resumption of spy flights off China's coast.

As the Bush team views it, the harder line is carefully calibrated. Washington still favors a strong commercial relationship and collaboration with China on issues where the two nations' interests overlap, such as the Korean Peninsula and the fight against narcotics trafficking. But the U.S. is no paper tiger where its geopolitical interests are at stake. "We do not view China as an enemy," James A. Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 1. "We view China as a partner on some issues and a competitor on others." Washington wants to make clear that China's missile arsenal, economic clout, and active diplomacy around Asia doesn't mean it holds all the cards.

Will this new policy backfire? So far, Beijing has responded mostly with propaganda blasts. But many of Bush's latest moves came during China's weeklong May 1 holiday. Chinese leaders may simply be reeling, and trying to discern where Bush is headed. Before long, predict China watchers, it will start striking back. Its options range from resuming arms sales to U.S. rivals such as Iraq to overwhelming any U.S. missile shield by ramping up its own nuclear program.

CLUMSY STYLE. The risk is that rather than clarifying U.S. intent, the Bush team is sowing dangerous confusion. Yan Xuetong, executive director of Beijing's Institute of International Studies, disputes the U.S. hawks' very premise for ditching "strategic ambiguity"--that China is fuzzy on the U.S. stand on Taiwan. "We know America will definitely be involved in a war [over Taiwan] without any hesitation," says Yan. "This would be a war between China and the U.S." He predicts Washington will unwittingly provoke a Taiwan conflict within a decade, and says the PLA sees Bush's remarks as a cue to prepare for war.

Some veteran U.S. Sinologists who have been left out of Bush Administration policy circles are aghast at what they see as a clumsy, unilateral style. Washington, they say, is stoking many deep-seated fears among Beijing leaders: that they will lose Taiwan for good, that they are surrounded by U.S.-backed enemies, that foreigners are fomenting domestic unrest. "I'm afraid they are pushing too many buttons too quickly," says David L. Shambaugh, a China expert at George Washington University. "If you are sitting in Beijing, you are seeing an unremittingly hostile U.S." One casualty, he says, could be nuclear non-proliferation: China has enough nuclear material to boost its arsenal of some 20 ICBMs tenfold within two years.

Beijing views Bush's missile defense push as particularly threatening. Top U.S. officials such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage are visiting countries bordering China--including Japan, Russia, and India--to enlist their backing for a missile shield. Intended or not, that could make Beijing feel encircled--even though it will receive a visit from the lower-ranking Kelly. By taking too little heed of China's national interests and internal political pressures, warns Kenneth Lieberthal, a top National Security Council Asia policy adviser in the Clinton Administration, Bush's approach "creates the potential for disaster."

There's also the danger of severely undermining Jiang, Premier Zhu Rongji, and other Chinese leaders regarded as moderate. Despite Beijing's rhetoric, they have taken big risks to improve ties with the U.S.--but could end up having little to show for it. Military hard-liners could grow stronger in autumn 2002, when Beijing will select new leaders.

It's too early to tell whether Bush's foreign policy team, with its paucity of China experts, has thought through the ramifications of its policies. But for now, the attention shifts to Beijing. Will it respond with serious diplomacy or decide to prepare for a confrontation?

By Pete Engardio in New York, Stan Crock in Washington, and Mark L. Clifford in Hong Kong

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