American-Chinese Relations After September 111

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American-Chinese Relations After September 111
Robert Sutter, Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA.
There is little consensus among US specialists regarding the recent trends and outlook in US policy toward China during the George W. Bush administration A prevailing view complains that frequent US leaders’ meetings with Chinese counterparts, sustained in spite of US preoccupation with issues in Central Asia and the Middle East after the September 11, 2002 terrorist attack on America, have done little to alleviate the negative trends seen in recent US policy.
A lack of “vision” has produced “a China policy adrift,” with no real progress on important issues with China and greater US-China tensions over Taiwan.2 Many US specialists on Chinese and Taiwan affairs argue strongly that the Bush administration needs to change its recent policy in several ways in order to avoid damage to US interests as a result of growing differences and possible confrontation with Beijing caused by the recent US tilt toward Taiwan. US policy should more strictly abide by the three communiqués, curb recently expanded US military cooperation with Taiwan, resume active military and other strategic dialogue with the PRC, and seek closer interaction with PRC leaders in order to develop a cooperative partnership with PRC leaders that promotes common ground amid continuing differences. The alternative is seen as an unstable and dangerous US-PRC relationship that will be prone to falling into confrontation and conflict for many years to come. Broad US goals of regional peace and development will be impossible to achieve under such circumstances, it is argued.3
A somewhat different perspective is offered by specialists who stress that the anti-terrorism campaign after September 11 has added to pressures on the Bush administration to modify differences with China and seek closer relations through high level leadership contacts and other means with the Chinese administration.4 Some in this group of specialists judge that when a new US administration takes power, it often positions its China policy in ways markedly different and often tougher than its predecessor. Over time, however, China’s importance to the United States in various ways usually results in US policy makers modifying their initially harder line and adopting a stance of overall US engagement of China that has been followed to various degrees by all US governments since the opening to China by President Richard Nixon over 30 years ago.
It is a fact that the George W. Bush administration has carried out the most significant rebalancing of US policy in the US-People’s Republic of China (PRC)-Taiwan triangular relationship since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972. The broad framework for US policy remains a “One China” policy defined by the three US-PRC communiqués establishing official US-PRC relations and requiring the breaking of official US ties with Taiwan. The United States does not support Taiwan independence, an anathema to Beijing.5 Nevertheless, the US administration has taken several steps that have departed from the practice of the recent past in leaning in favor of Taiwan and against Mainland China in the US-PRC-Taiwan triangular relationship. But it is also a fact that President Bush and other senior administration leaders have gone out of their way to engage in high-level exchanges with senior Chinese leaders during the past year. President Bush went to China twice in the six months after September 11, and he and his administration have welcomed the Chinese vice president and president to visit the United States in 2002.
In contrast with those specialists concerned or even alarmed by the recent turn in US policy toward China, or those who see the United States making special efforts to resume engagement with China after an initial hard-line period, is a third view of those specialists who are impressed by the strong US leverage over China regarding important issues in Sino-US relations in the current situation. This view is relatively sanguine about the Bush administration’s ability to manage this leverage in ways advantageous for long term US interests.6
Proponents of this view tend to see that the experience of the past three decades of US policy in relations with the PRC and Taiwan shows that US leverage over China regarding US policy toward Taiwan and other issues has increased in the past when US leaders have felt confident in the US international position and in their own domestic position. Strong and confident US leaders during the tenure of Secretary of State George Schultz in the Reagan administration in the mid 1980s were successful in muting Chinese pressure on Taiwan, and US policy toward the island proceeded without significant interruption, despite serious acrimony over the US-PRC-Taiwan relationship in the preceding years. US leverage over China appeared strong after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR undermined the perceived US strategic need for accommodation of Chinese interests over Taiwan and other issues. But the US leverage was poorly used as policy was subjected principally to the active US domestic debate over US policy toward China.7
The Clinton administration eventually came up with a more coherent “engagement” policy toward China in its second term, but lost leverage over China especially regarding the Taiwan issue partly because of its perceived need to avoid “swings” in the US-China relationship over the Taiwan issue and to seek signs of progress in the US engagement with China that required cooperation from the PRC. Not surprisingly, PRC bargainers insisted on concessions in areas of importance to them, notably US relations with Taiwan.8
PRC ability to bargain and pressure on Taiwan and other issues has appeared much less with the current Bush administration that has seemed to seek little in the way of concessions from China and offers little in return. The US administration appears popular at home and powerful and influential in world affairs, with or without Chinese government support. Powers like Russia and India have joined with the EU and Japan in endeavoring to work hard to join with the United States in key international efforts—notably the war against terrorism.
China continues on a recent trajectory as a rising power—with attendant economic growth, military modernization, and expanding political influence. Nevertheless, Chinese leaders are also preoccupied with difficult leadership succession issues and protracted economic and social challenges to China’s internal stability. Beijing leaders notably have sought to preserve advantageous US economic contacts and avoid the broad and internally wrenching ramifications of any major change in China’s US policy. Seeking an Olympic bid for 2008 and a smooth transition into the WTO have added to reasons for moderation. Rapidly growing Taiwan-mainland economic interchange also has caused Chinese leaders to become somewhat more optimistic about cross strait relations, though the PLA’s military buildup opposite Taiwan continues.9

The second Clinton administration was seen by Beijing as anxious to avoid major downturns or “swings” in the China relationship that might have jeopardized the passage of legislation in Congress granting Chinese goods permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) tariff treatment, and also might have called attention to President Clinton’s mixed record on handling China policy, especially in his first term. Against this background, the Clinton administration gave China the highest priority in US Asia policy—a potential source of leverage for the PRC.10

By contrast, the Bush administration’s reaction to the April 1, 2001 EP-3 episode, markedly increased US support for Taiwan, and new US focus on China as a potential threat showed Beijing leaders that the current US government has been prepared to see US-China relations worsen if necessary. The firm US stance seemed to have US domestic backing, fitting well with mainstream congressional and US media opinion regarding China. Thus, Chinese leaders by mid 2001 seemed to recognize that if US-China relations were to avoid further deterioration, it was up to China to take steps to improve ties. The result has seen Chinese officials more solicitous and less acrimonious in interaction with US officials in many years, a toning down of Chinese rhetoric against US hegemonism, and even some tentative signs of public PRC support for the US military presence in East Asia.
The current balance in US policy toward China suggests that Chinese leaders are likely to continue to be solicitous of improved US ties and less likely to pressure the US government for concessions or threaten strong countermeasures to US actions on Taiwan and other sensitive issues. Beijing is not compromising core interests regarding Taiwan, proliferation, human rights and other issues, though it may be more willing to make some case-by-case concessions in the interest of stabilizing the relationship. US business interests seem satisfied with the enlarging US-China economic relationship, while US friends and allies in Asia are reassured that the past year has seen relations move to greater stability and reduced tensions. The war against terrorism has muffled much of the US domestic debate over China policy, allowing US administration leaders a freer hand in dealing with China.
However, the situation remains delicate--the administration has exponents of a harder line who could push too hard on Taiwan or other sensitive issues, prompting a strong PRC backlash. Taiwan supporters could seek advantage at the expense of US-PRC stability. Beijing appears to have little room for compromise on sensitive issues like policy toward Taiwan.
On balance, the pro-Taiwan forces in the United States have been satisfied with Bush administration policy and there is little sense of urgency to seek more support from the United States. The formation of the congressional Taiwan caucus in April 2002 reflects the deep congressional support for Taiwan more than any strong sense of congressional dissatisfaction with Bush administration policy.11 Pro-Taiwan forces in the United States are less likely to push hard for further advances in US ties with Taiwan so long as Taipei seeks to avoid unneeded difficulty with Beijing at a time of tense cross strait relations and declining economic prospects and political order in Taiwan. Up to now, Taipei generally has joined US allies and friends in the region, along with US business interests and other opinion leaders in urging stability in US policy toward cross strait issues. In general, this appears to be enough to brake egregious forward movement in US ties with Taiwan, although US steps seen as needed to secure Taiwan against the continuing PRC military buildup are likely to add to the arms race and tension in cross strait relations.
There is a danger that Taipei—frustrated by the impasse in cross strait interchange and unable to make headway on domestic economic and political issues—may seek a higher US profile for President Chen Shui-bian, even at the risk of a serious downturn in US-PRC relations. Some pro-Taiwan groups are pushing for a visit by President Chen to Washington DC. President Chen himself has spoken in recent video conferences with Washington DC and other US audiences about his desire to be with them “in person.”12 However, the generally deliberative style of decision making in the Bush administration may provide a brake to domestically driven initiatives that would do little to improve US interests as they risk major friction in US relations with the PRC.

Bush administration rebalancing US policy toward the PRC and Taiwan

The adjustments in US policy during the George W. Bush administration thus far have involved several steps, most notably the President’s personal pledge on national television in the United States that he would do “whatever it takes” militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of an attack from mainland China. No American president has issued such a strong statement in support of Taiwan’s defense since before the ending of the US defense treaty with Taiwan at the time of normalization of US diplomatic relations with the PRC in the late 1970s. US officials have maintained that the President’s statement did not represent a change in US policy toward the PRC and Taiwan, but no US officials have said the President did not mean what he said, and several senior officials have highlighted the President’s statement in interchanges with Taiwan officials and other observers.13
President Bush also notably departed from the past practice of US Presidents preparing for and carrying out visits to the PRC by strongly highlighting US support for Taiwan in his rhetoric before and during his China trip in February 2002. Thus, President Bush used his weekly address to the nation just prior to his departure for Asia to hail Taiwan as one of America’s notable friends in the region; he equated Taiwan with the Philippines, a formal US ally.14 In the Japanese Diet during his Tokyo stop prior to visiting Beijing, the US President pointedly emphasized US support for Taiwan to the warm applause of the Japanese legislators.15 In China, Mr. Bush repeatedly mentioned the importance of the Taiwan Relations Act and the US defense commitment to Taiwan, while making no public mention to the three US communiqués that define the US-PRC relationship and are viewed by Beijing as the bedrock of the relationship.16
The Bush administration’s initial arms sales package for Taiwan was larger than any since the President’s father agreed in 1992 to sell 150 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan in a move seen motivated in considerable part by the President need to woo voters in Texas, a key state in the 1992 presidential race and the location of factories producing the F-16s. The George W. Bush administration provided considerably greater freedom to President Chen Shui-bian and other high level Taiwan officials on several day ‘transit” visits to the United States, and the Taiwan Defense Minister was allowed to participate in a business conference in Florida in March 2002 where he engaged in talks with the Deputy Secretary of Defense and other US officials attending the meeting.17
Senior US defense, intelligence and foreign policy officials repeatedly take aim at the buildup of Chinese missiles and other forces opposite Taiwan, viewing them as a threat to Taiwan and to US forces that could be ordered to help protect Taiwan in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.18 Although the administration’s initial arms package to Taiwan did not contain AEGIS destroyers and their capable missile defense systems, senior US officials have warned on the record and in the presence of PRC officials that if the PLA buildup continues the chances of the United States providing missile defense systems for Taiwan increases.19
The rebalancing of US policy has also involved a notable downgrading in the importance that the United States government places on relations with China. Though early campaign rhetoric about China as a strategic competitor received heavy media attention, George W. Bush gave relatively little attention to China and foreign policy during the campaign and early months of the administration, and he was careful to reaffirm strong interest in cooperative trade relations and China’s entry into the WTO.20 The administration’s strategy toward China appeared to be part of a broader effort to improve US power and influence in world and Asian affairs through US economic and military strength, closer ties with US allies and friends (in East Asia, especially Japan), and new openings with other world power centers, notably Russia and India.21
The new President and his team also have displayed a view of China that is much less benign than that of President Clinton, who expressed faith that economic development, globalization, and US engagement with China would lead to eventual change in China and greater Chinese interdependence abroad that would benefit the United States. The Bush strategic vision of China has been more focused on China as a competitor and strategic adversary and Taiwan has been seen as a key area where these differences have played out.22 In particular:

  • China is seen as a rising economic and military power, seeking to confront the United States over Taiwan and over time to ease the United States out of East Asia

  • China has opposed US support for Taiwan, has given top military priority to dealing with the United States in a Taiwan contingency

  • China also has opposed the strengthening of the US-Japan defense alliance; US missile defense plans; and works against US interests in Asian and world affairs, in ASEAN Plus Three, The Shanghai Cooperation Group, the UN and elsewhere.

  • Aware of China’s continued strong need for workable ties, especially economic ties, with the United States, the new US administration has been able to set upon a course that has appealed to those in the United States supportive of Taiwan and critical of the PRC, without risking a breakdown in US-PRC relations. Its course also has served to warn the PRC clearly of US determination over Taiwan issues, presumably seeking to deter the PRC from aggressive moves. The steps have included arms sales to Taiwan, closer military contacts, and greater leeway for President Chen Shui-bian and other Taiwan leaders visiting the United States, and President Bush’s personal assurance about defending Taiwan from attack. More broadly, the United States has signaled an overall downgrading of China’s priority and has highlighted Japan and close allies and friends.

Unsure of rising China’s implications for US interests, the US government has cooperated in areas of common ground while demonstrating stronger determination to defend US security interests, notably regarding Taiwan and the western Pacific. The administration repeatedly downgraded China’s priority for US decision makers, placing PRC well behind Asian allies and even Russia and India for foreign policy attention. Initial signs of this tendency included the President’s personal calls to leaders in Japan, South Korea, and Russia, while Chinese leaders were sent more formal letters, and strenuous Administration efforts to make sure that the President met personally with the senior leaders of South Korea and Japan before a senior PRC official, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, was allowed to meet with the President in March 2001.23

The EP-3 incident of April 1, 2001 led to a sharp down turn in relations. Significantly, the Bush administration did not resort to high-level envoys or other special arrangements often used to resolve difficult US-China issues, insisting on working through normal State Department and Defense Department channels that did not raise China’s stature in US foreign policy. In the strained atmosphere of those months, US officials resorted to a tactic often used by China to show its displeasure with foreign governments by ordering all US officials to avoid all but the most essential contacts with Chinese officials in Washington and elsewhere.24 The recently arrived Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi, reportedly a close friend of the US President’s father and a reputed so-called “tiger” noted for his tough negotiations with the Clinton administration, was largely ignored by official Washington. Presumably seeking to make good use of his unexpected free time, he made the rounds of Washington think tanks giving speeches in a carefully moderate tone emphasizing China’s sincere interest to move the relationship forward.25
While avoiding compromise in core Chinese interests, PRC leaders endeavored to insure that Secretary of State Powell’s one-day visit to Beijing in late July went smoothly. Official Chinese media had already begun to muffle the sometimes-strident Chinese media complaints against alleged US hegemonism and efforts to contain China that had been common in recent years, and Chinese officials even hinted at a more positive view of the US military presence in the western Pacific. The US side also signaled an interest to calm the concerns of friends and allies in Asia over the state of US-China relations and to pursue areas of common ground in trade and other areas with the PRC.26
The anti-terrorism campaign saw an upswing in cooperation, though China was the most reserved among world power centers in supporting the US war against Afghanistan. President Bush’s visits to Shanghai in October 2001 and Beijing in February 2002 had as much to do with US strategy in Asia as with China. They showed a US willingness to meet Chinese leaders’ symbolic needs for summitry. But they sustained a tough US stance on bilateral differences.27
The President was unwavering in his support of the US pledge to provide aid for Taiwan’s defense. His views on human rights, religious freedom, and other sensitive issues remained firm. In the nine months prior to the trip, his Administration imposed sanctions on China three times over issues involving China’s reported proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—more than in the entire eight years of the Clinton administration. The US Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review unmistakably saw China as a potential threat in Asia. US ballistic missile defense programs severely challenged China’s nuclear deterrent and intimidation strategy against Taiwan, and rising US influence and prolonged military deployments were at odds with previous Chinese strategy along China’s western flank.28
At the same time, the US President endorsed the pursuit of a “constructive, cooperative and candid” relationship with China. He appeared to realize the importance of treating Chinese leaders with respect and acknowledging Beijing’s progress in developing the Chinese economy and improving the standard of living of the Chinese people. President Bush seemed to please Chinese leaders by inviting both Vice President Hu Jintao and President Jiang Zemin for separate visits to the United States in 2002.29
Notably lagging in this resumed US engagement was the Department of Defense. US military contacts remained very restricted while other departments were resuming engagement. In this context, many observers speculated about significant differences among Bush administration officials concerning policy toward China.30 In broad terms, they viewed Secretary Powell and the State Department leading a wing of the administration seeking to manage differences with China in ways that would avoid disruption and allow for greater development of common ground.
In contrast, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was seen leading a harder line approach that gave pride of place to China’s ongoing military buildup directed at intimidating Taiwan and dealing with contingencies involving US forces in a Taiwan conflict. This Chinese challenge was seen to have implications for the US strategic presence and influence in East Asia and the western Pacific, and to be part of a broader Chinese effort to spread China’s influence at US expense in Asian and world affairs, using military power, WMD proliferation, and espionage, as well as more conventional economic, diplomatic, and political means. Secretary Rumsfeld did meet with the visiting PRC Vice President in Washington in May 2002, and the vice president’s smoothly run visit to the United States saw the two sides agree to move forward on military exchanges sharply cut back by the Bush Defense Department, especially after the EP-3 incident .
A feature of recent US policy toward China is to limit US requests for Chinese support and assistance, particularly any steps seen as possible “favors’ to the United States. As one US official privately noted in an interview in February 2002, “this administration (the George W. Bush) administration doesn’t ask China for much;” he viewed this as a contrast with the previous US administration that was seen to be in repeated negotiations with China seeking “deliverables” that would be highlighted during high-level US-China meetings.31
Although President Bush welcomed Chinese support in the anti-terrorism campaign and reportedly sought Chinese assistance in getting North Korea to resume dialogue and ease tensions on the Korean peninsula, there was little sign of strong US efforts to ask for changes in Chinese policies and behavior. US officials were clear and explicit about the negative consequences for China flowing from such behavior as the military buildup opposite Taiwan, and WMD proliferation activities, and they duly criticized Chinese human rights restrictions. They emphasized that US military power would be brought to bear to deal with the Taiwan imbalance while sanctions would continue regarding nonproliferation infractions.
Seemingly underlining China’s continued low priority for the Bush administration, Assistant Secretary James Kelly’s discussion of US relations with East Asia in testimony to Congress prior to the President’s trip in February contained over three pages of very positive commentary on US-Japan relations, over three pages of very positive commentary on US-South Korea relations, over three pages of neutral or positive commentary about other parts of Asia where the President was not visiting, and only two pages of mixed negative and positive comments about China.32 That China’s support in the anti-terror campaign registered low on the Administration’s scale seemed underlined by Pacific Commander in Chief Admiral Dennis Blair’s 70 pages of testimony to Congress in March 2002 that highlighted the anti-terrorism cooperation and activities of various actors in Asia but ignored mention of China in this regard.33
The rebalancing of the US stance in the US-PRC-Taiwan triangular relationship in a direction favorable to Taiwan thus far has not elicited much domestic debate in the United States. Debate over China policy related issues has been muffled as a result of US preoccupation with the anti-terrorism campaign which appears to have much more salient implications for American interests. Mainstream opinion in Congress, the media, and in public opinion remains skeptical of China and more positive regarding Taiwan and US support for Taiwan. US business interests remain a powerful domestic force in favor of avoiding disruptive controversy in US-PRC relations, but their concerns appear to be met by the Bush administration’s careful emphasis on maintaining mutually advantageous economic relations with China despite differences over other issues.34 Meanwhile, PRC leaders have been reluctant to express strong dissatisfaction with Bush administration actions, a marked contrast with Chinese public and private pressure on some previous US administrations to tow the line on US relations with Taiwan and other sensitive issues.35
The apparent recent success of the Bush administration in rebalancing US policy toward Taiwan and the PRC, notably pursuing US interests with Taiwan more vigorously than previous administrations without prompting a confrontation with Beijing, is no guarantee of future success. The delicate balance in US-PRC-Taiwan relations is easily upset; any of the parties could take assertive actions that could upset the current equilibrium.
US and other critics of the recent Bush administration policy have paid special attention to actions by Taiwan and pro-Taiwan forces in the United States that seek greater Taiwan separateness from China or closer US-Taiwan security relations; such actions in turn could elicit a strong PRC backlash. Under these or other circumstances, Beijing leaders could recalculate the costs and benefits of the current moderate PRC approach to the United States, and decide that a more forceful stance would better serve longer-term Chinese interests.36 Meanwhile, proponents in the US domestic debate over China policy remain active behind the scenes. Notably, Clinton administration officials and Democratic leaders in Congress might see some utility in attacking the Bush administration’s handling of China policy in the event of a serious downturn in US-PRC relations over Taiwan or other issues. Those US interests pursuing a harder line toward China or even stronger US support for Taiwan presumably will seek opportunities to pursue their policy agenda once the circumstances appear suitable.37
Nevertheless, an argument can be made in favor of the likelihood of continued Bush administration success in pursuing its recent policy direction toward Taiwan and the PRC. Looking out for a year or two, and perhaps longer, it sees particular strengths flowing from the formulation and design of Bush administration policy toward China and Taiwan, and from international and domestic circumstances influencing that policy.
Policy formulation and design
The Bush administration came into office without a clearly defined China policy but with a generally clear and balanced approach to China, emphasizing both a strong desire to engage China economically and a wariness regarding Chinese strategic intentions, especially regarding Taiwan. Personalities and leaders within the administration have been seen to have varying perspectives on China, with some being viewed as “hard line.” There also has developed an apparent institutional gap between the Department of Defense and other US departments as far as interaction and engagement with China is concerned, with Defense being very reserved on such interchange with China.
The example of the administration’s handling of a significant crisis with China, over the April 1, 2001 EP-3 incident, has appeared to suggest in the context of many other indicators in other areas of foreign policy that the administration’s approach to the PRC and Taiwan is probably deliberative.38 That is, the major players in US policy—leaders of foreign and defense policy departments and agencies, appear to have the opportunity to make their positions known in Bush administration leadership sessions presided over by the President and the Vice President, both backed by National Security Council specialists who put a premium on professional competence and who appear to have avoided taking sides in significant issues in the ongoing US domestic debate over policy toward China.
The record in the EP 3 episode demonstrates that administration leaders endeavor to show unity in a crisis and are prepared to be pragmatic and flexible on certain issues in the interest of pursuing the broader agreed upon goals for US policy. In such a context, advocates of strong positions (e.g. “hard liners”) may be able to have their views heard, but those views are put in the context of a collective decision making process that makes moves to the extreme more difficult under most circumstances. Moreover, the broad foreign and security policy experience of the administration’s deliberative body means that US domestic political interests seeking to push US policy toward China or Taiwan in one direction or another, probably will be subjected to careful scrutiny as to how such US moves, perhaps advantageous in US domestic politics, would impact important US foreign policy interests.
Meanwhile, the overall design of the administration’s policy seems broadly to replay the approach used during George Schultz’s tenure as Secretary of State, assisted at that time by Paul Wolfowitz and supported by Richard Armitage.39 US policy seeks to build on US national strength and nurture relations with key allies, like Japan, that share US interests and values, and are trusted by US policy makers. It also seeks opportunities for cooperation, and has achieved some notable success, with other notable power centers, including Russia and India. China’s position as the key focus of US East Asian policy in the previous administration has been ended. Areas of common ground with China are duly pursued, notably closer economic interaction that is beneficial to both countries. Areas of difference with China are dealt with in a matter-of-fact way, without special treatment or major statements of concern, and as is deemed appropriate from the standpoint of US power and influence.
The administration expresses hope that China will behave in ways that will broaden the common ground between China and the United States, and in particular that Beijing will change its status as the only large power in world affairs that focuses its growing military buildup on the need to deter and attack US forces.40 But unlike the previous US administration, the Bush administration does not appear to see the need to engage in extensive negotiations with Chinese officials or make concessions to the PRC in order to persuade China to change its behavior. Rather, the US administration seems prepared to deal with unacceptable PRC behavior through among other means US military preparations regarding Taiwan, sanctions directed against Chinese WMD proliferation activities, and criticism of China’s human rights and religious persecution practices.
Administration officials are obviously well aware that Chinese leaders might resist the new US approach to China, possibly resulting in a downgrading of the US-China relationship. They seem prepared to accept and deal with the consequences of such an eventuality without changing the overall course of US policy. At the same time, they have shown sufficient pragmatism to be expected to adjust US policy in the event that important US interests, such as economic relations with China or cooperative relations with US friends and allies concerned about rising friction in US-China relations, were adversely affected.
International and domestic circumstances
The recent Bush administration policy approach to China is also likely to be successful because of three sets of circumstances that appear probable to continue for the next year or so, and perhaps longer.
First, US leadership in world affairs appears unassailable for now, and the low level of attention it devotes to China appears broadly understandable at home and abroad given the many other more pressing US foreign policy concerns. US leadership in the anti-terrorism war has seen other world power centers align closely with the United States, with China as the most reserved.41 US policy is also preoccupied with the Middle East, and has various higher priority interests to pursue regarding NATO expansion, NATO-Russian relations, US ballistic missile defense efforts, and policy in the Western Hemisphere. In this context, a Chinese move to strongly protest US policy or to downgrade relations with the US presumably would have little notable effect on US world stature or foreign policy priorities.
Second, the Bush administration’s strong standing abroad and strong approval ratings at home make it more difficult for the various US interest groups with a focus on issues in US China policy to push US policy in directions inconsistent with the recent Bush

Administration approach. Some groups have tried to revive issues in the China policy debate in recent months, notably commentaries in the Washington Times giving play to arguments favoring a tougher US stance toward the alleged threats posed by China, and efforts by pro-Taiwan groups for further demonstrations of US support for Taiwan.42 Thus far, they have attracted little attention and their impact on US policy has appeared small.

Finally, the preoccupation of Chinese leaders with other policy priorities appears likely to continue through the transition of leadership in 2002-2003 and probably beyond. Newly installed Chinese leaders probably will not seek to carry out a major reevaluation of policy toward the United States unless pressed by events. Also, they will seek under most conceivable circumstances short of military conflict to preserve the advantageous economic relationship with the United States.43
It seems fairly clear that the Bush administration is not taking nearly as many active steps as the previous administration to build friendship with Chinese leaders. Some specialists see this as a serious shortcoming, as the frictions caused by US-Chinese differences, especially as China rises in power and influence in Asian and world affairs, will require mutual trust and friendship built over the years in order to be dealt with peacefully and effectively. The alternative will be US-China conflict and instability, in the view of these specialists.
Those who support the current Bush administration approach judge that not only does the recent policy allow for greater US leeway regarding Taiwan and other sensitive issues, and avoids interaction with PRC leaders that would require US concessions in sensitive areas, but it also holds promise for smooth US-China relations in the future. One advantage of the low priority Bush policy for Chinese leaders is that US efforts to press for change in China’s political system and US moralizing about the evils and shortcomings of China’s system—prominent features of US policy after the Cold War—have been muted. The Bush administration shows respect for Chinese leaders, as it deals in a business-like way with common ground and differences in US China relations.
As Chinese leaders’ legitimacy is not challenged by the United States, and as Chinese leaders continue to focus on domestic and other policy priorities, a case can be made that Chinese leaders may see it in their interests to come to terms perhaps incrementally with the recent US approach, endeavoring to build common ground with the Bush administration while reserving differences. Over time and perhaps in response to incremental changes in Chinese behavior, the Bush administration may see US interests well served with pragmatic adjustments to accord more with Chinese concerns. The administration would probably find American domestic opinion and interest groups more inclined to follow its directions toward a more moderate US policy toward China than the previous administration. This step-by-step process of improved relations will not be based on a vision of US-China “friendship” or “cooperation.” It will reflect the calculations of realistic and pragmatic leaders on both sides willing to pursue areas—even small areas—of mutual advantage amid an overall relationship characterized by serious continuing differences and important areas of common ground.

1 A draft paper for presentation at a workshop on American China Policy, Center for Applied Policy Research (CAP), Munich, Germany, July 11, 2002, written by Robert Sutter, Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA.

2 Elizabeth Economy, “Take a New Look at a Changing China,” International Herald Tribune, April 30, 2002 (internet version).

3 These views are reviewed in among others Michael Swaine and Minxin Pei, “Rebalancing US-China Relations.” Washington: Carnegie Endowment Policy Brief 13 February 2002, Richard Holbrooke, “A defining moment with China,” Washington Post, January 2, 2002 (internet version), and David M. Lampton, “Small mercies: China and America after 9/11.” Washington: The Nixon Center. Press Release January 14, 2002.

4 David Shambaugh, “From the White House, all zigzags lead to China,” Washington Post, February 17, 2002 (internet version).

5 “Bush Xinhua Interview,” Xinhua February 15,2002 US Foreign Broadcast Information Service (internet version). “Remarks by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to US-Taiwan Business Council, March 11, 2002,” Reuters April 9, 2002.

6 Robert Sutter, Grading Bush’s China Policy. Honolulu: CSIS Pacific Forum. PACNET 10, March 8, 2002.

7 Among useful sources for coverage of these issues, see Ramon Myers, Michel Oksenberg, David Shambaugh, (eds.), Making China Policy: Lessons from the Bush and Clinton Administrations, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. David M. Lampton, Same Bed-Different Dreams. Berkeley: University of California, 2001. James Mann, About Face. New York; Knopf, 1998. Robert S. Ross, Negotiating Cooperation. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press. 1995. Robert Sutter, US Policy Toward China. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

8 See among others Kerry Dumbaugh, “Interest Groups: Growing Influence,” James Mann, “Congress and Taiwan,” and Robert Sutter, “The US Congress: Personal, Partisan, Political” in Ramon Myers, Michel Oksenberg, and David Shambaugh, eds. Making China Policy, p. 79-222.

9 Among useful assessments of recent Chinese priorities, see Thomas Christensen, “China,” in Richard Ellings and Aaron Friedberg, eds. Strategic Asia. Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2001, p. 27-70.

10 See quarterly reviews of late Clinton administration and George W, Bush administration interaction with China in Comparative Connections. Honolulu: CSIS Pacific Forum,

11 “Taiwan getting a stronger voice in US Congress,” Taipei Times, April 11, 2002 (internet version).

12 Murray Hiebert and Susan Lawrence, “Crossing Red Lines,” Far Eastern Economic Review, April 4, 2002 (internet version).

13 “US vows to do what it takes to aid Taiwan defense,” Reuters, April 9, 2002. Steve Mufson, “President Pledges Defense of Taiwan,” Washington Post April 26, 2001, p. A1.

14 Radio address of the President to the nation, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, February 16, 2002.

15 “Bush address to Diet promotes security, trade, reform,” Japan Times, February 20,2002 (internet version)

16 Erik Eckolm, “US and China stay positive, but make little progress,” New York Times, February 23, 2002 (internet version).

17 For quarterly reviews and chronologies of developments in US-China relations, see the articles by Bonnie Glaser in Comparative Connections. Honolulu: CSIS, Pacific Forum.

18 Testimony of CIA Director George Tenet to the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 20, 2002. Testimony of Admiral Dennis Blair to the House Armed Services Committee, March 20, 2002.

19 Luncheon remarks of Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly at the National Press Club, Washington DC, February 27, 2002.

20 Murray Hiebert, The Bush Presidency: Implications for Asia. New York: The Asia Society, Asian Update January 2001, p. 5-9.

21 Hiebert, The Bush Presidency. p. 9-19.

22 Testimony of CIA Director George Tenet to the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 20, 2002. Testimony of Admiral Dennis Blair to the House Armed Services Committee, March 20, 2002. “Viewing US as obstacle to its rise, China modernizes military: CIA,” Agence France Presse march 20, 2002.

23 Bonnie Glaser, “First Contact: Qian Qichen engages in wide-ranging, constructive talks,” Comparative Connections. 1st quarter 2001. Honolulu: CSIS Pacific Forum.

24 John Keefe, Anatomy of the EP-3 Incident Alexandria VA: Center for Naval Analysis. January 2002.

25 Ambassador Yang spoke at forums at the Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, among others.

26 Nick Cummings-Bruce, “Powell Will Explain Bush’s Asia Policy,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2001, p. A 11. See also the review of this period by Bonnie Glaser in Comparative Connections.

27 Bonnie Glaser, “Bush’s China policy shows change,” Taipei Times, March 18, 2002. Robert Sutter, Grading Bush’s China policy. Honolulu: CSIS Pacific Forum PACNET 10, March 8, 2002.

28 “Concern over US plans for war on terror dominate Jiang tour,” Reuters, April 7, 2002. Willy Wo-Lap Lam, “US, Taiwan Catch Jiang off-guard,” March 19, 2002.

29 Bonnie Glaser, “Bush’s China Policy shows change,” Taipei Times, March 18, 2002 (internet version).

30 See for example, David Shambaugh, “From the White House, all zigzags lead to China,” Washington Post, February 17, 2002.

31 Interview at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC February 12, 2002.

32 Statement of James Kelly before the House International Relations Committee East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, February 14, 2002.

33 Statement of Admiral Dennis Blair before the House Armed services Committee, March 20,2002.

34 Among reviews of US domestic debate on China policy, see Kerry Dumbaugh, China-US Relations. Washington: The Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Issue Brief 98018, updated regularly.

35 Pan Zhongying, Bush visit and Sino-US ties. Honolulu: CSIS Pacific Forum, PACNET 8, February 8, 2002. “Sino-US cooperation vital to world peace: Tang Jiaxuan,” China Daily, March 7, 2002. Wang Jisi, “Internal values set to push Sino-US relations to maturity,” Lien-Ho Pao (Taipei) March 19, 2002, p.13.

36 Murray Hiebert and Susan Lawrence, “Crossing Red Lines,” Far Eastern Economic Review, April4, 2002 (internet version); David Lague, “This is what it takes,” Far Eastern Economic Review, April 25, 2002 (internet version).

37 Richard Holbrooke, “A defining moment with China,” Washington Post, January 2, 2002 (internet version); Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, “Inside the Ring,” Washington Times, April 19, 2002 (internet version); Murray Hiebert and Susan Lawrence, “Crossing Red Lines,” Far Eastern Economic Review, April 4, 2002 (internet version).

38 John Keefe, Anatomy of the EP-3 Incident. Alexandria VA: Center for Naval Analysis, January 2002.

39 See among others James Mann, About Face. New York: Knopf, 1999, p. 128-130.

40 “US military commander warns of cross-strait arms race,” Agence France Presse, April 18, 2002. Remarks by Admiral Dennis Blair in Hong Kong, April 22, 2002 http://www.pacom/speeches.

41 “Jiang ends five-nation tour, deploring expansion of US war on terrorism,” Agence France Presse April 22, 2002.

42 Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, “Inside the Ring,” Washington Times, March 22, 2002 (internet version). Murray Hiebert and Susan Lawrence, “Crossing Red Lines,” Far Eastern Economic Review April 4, 2000 (internet version).

43 Frank Ching, “China puts growth before reunification,” Japan Times, April 19, 2002 (internet version).

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