Don't let Deputy of Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's fondness for pandas mislead you. The Bush administration's China policy has been undergoing a quiet metamorphosis, and now has a new steeliness to it.
Fifteen months ago, just two days before George W. Bush's reelection, the Chinese government's English-language mouthpiece, China Daily, reprinted a blast by senior diplomat Qian Qichen against a "Bush Doctrine" marked by "cocksuredness and arrogance." President Bush no doubt believed, in the last days of an extremely tight race, that Qian's comments were an attempt to influence the result of the election, or at the very least an attempt to ingratiate Beijing with John Kerry, then slightly ahead in the polls. Upon his reelection, President Bush was apparently not amused.
Since then, his China policy has evolved away from its once-cautious optimism that Beijing might possibly, somehow, be persuaded to join Washington in maintaining a rules-based world order on such issues as nonproliferation, trade, human rights, energy, environment, and health policies. The official U.S. agnosticism about where China's rise will take it--and the world--seems to be ebbing. Instead, the administration seems ready to conclude that China is not going in the right direction and that the United States must hedge its bets.
On February 3, a midlevel interagency meeting kicked off a new round of policy reviews in preparation for President Bush's upcoming meetings with Chinese president Hu Jintao, scheduled for the end of April. The meeting was hastily arranged after Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian's remarks questioning the continued utility of Taiwan's official "National Unification Council." (The council was established in 1991 to consider modes of eventual unification should China ever democratize, but has not met since 1999 and is kept on life support by a token annual budget appropriation of roughly $30.) The question of the day at the February 3 meeting was, "How does the Taiwan president's stance affect the Taiwan Strait 'status quo' in the run-up to the Hu visit?"
"Not much," according to some administration China experts. Bush's National Security Council China director Dennis Wilder, I was told, launched the discussion with a recitation of China's unhelpful behavior in the Taiwan Strait over the past year and urged a policy of "balance." To be sure, Taiwan's infant democracy has given fits to the Bush administration. But China's behavior has been egregious.
Beijing's so-called "Anti-Secession Law" last March was an open-ended declaration of a casus belli against Taiwan. Since 2001, Taiwan has opened direct links between China and the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu, licensed direct charter flights to China, relaxed investment rules, and begged for military-to-military "confidence-building measures." China has rebuffed every call from Taiwan for cross-Strait dialogue. Chinese Communist party leaders will deal only with opposition parties in Taiwan that "adhere" to the "one China principle" and oppose Taiwan's defense spending. Beijing even refused to allow a Taiwan representative to attend the December 30 funeral of Wang Daohan, Beijing's most eminent Taiwan negotiator.
In short, China has done nothing to requite Taiwan's outreach. By the time of his November visit to Beijing, President Bush had become so dismayed that he inserted a paragraph praising Taiwan's democracy into his Asia policy speech in Kyoto--a paragraph that surprised every China watcher in Washington, including those in the White House. The president, it seems, was personally trying to maintain the balance.
Separate interagency meetings in early February reviewed China's unhelpful posture on Iran's nuclear program. (China's ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Guangya, reassured Tehran that, as a "matter of principle," China would "never" support sanctions on Iran.) China continues to give cover to North Korea's nuclear intransigence and extends financial and military aid to despotic, sometimes genocidal, Asian and African regimes, from Burma and Uzbekistan to Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Further hardening administration attitudes were the xenophobic Chinese government-instigated demonstrations and violence against Japan last spring and the September incident in which China's newest Russian-built destroyer locked its fire-control radar onto a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft--over Japanese-claimed waters. In 2004, the State Department had explicitly warned that "Article 5 of the [U.S.-Japan] Mutual Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands," the territory in question. China seemed to be probing how firm the U.S.-Japan alliance is.
All of these considerations point to a new consensus within the administration that, on the China-Taiwan issue at least, Washington should rebalance its policies back in Taiwan's direction.
It just so happened that the Pentagon also issued its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) on February 3. A number of Pentagon China hands I spoke with that Friday evening pointed to QDR pages 29 and 30 and commented to me that it was the first time a QDR had ever mentioned a putative adversary nation by name. The passage reads as follows:
of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages absent U.S. counter strategies.
The QDR then spends an entire page describing how "the pace and scope of China's military build-up already puts regional military balances at risk." And to top it off, one China specialist at Defense pointed to the two photos that bracket the China pages--one depicting a submarine launch of a Tomahawk cruise missile, the other showing Japanese and American F-15 fighter pilots "discussing tactics . . . before a mission." A mischievous smile on my interlocutor's face prompted me to ask, "Was that intentional?" He grinned, "Intentional or not, that's how the Chinese will see it."
Bush administration attitudes toward China are hardening in other ways. In early December, Deputy Secretary Zoellick concluded the latest semi-annual round of U.S.-China dialogue with his Chinese counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo--"one of the few Chinese diplomats comfortable with departing from a prepared script," according to one administration China hand. When the dialogue concluded, however, Zoellick reportedly was left with the impression that he had done all the talking and that Dai had only listened noncommittally.
Zoellick had been particularly concerned about China's support for African dictatorships and its complete blindness to the human misery they wreak. On January 12, Zoellick got his response--a slap in the face in the form of a Chinese foreign ministry "white paper" on Africa. On the matter of human rights, civil and political rights, and genocide, China's white paper was silent. It said instead that China "respects African countries' independent choice of the road of development and supports African countries' efforts to grow stronger through unity." In other words, what African dictators do to their own people is of no concern to Beijing.
Which made it all the more puzzling when Zoellick then went out of his way to stop in Beijing after consultations in Tokyo (and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland), and then travel on to the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu on January 25, for the sole purpose of getting a photograph of himself "hugging a panda"--for his wife, he told reporters. The resulting images of Zoellick clad in a sterile veterinary smock and gloves, cuddling a distinctly uncomfortable baby panda, could have been seen as evidence the Bush administration had gone a bit soft in the noggin' on China. Indeed, the initial reaction among Washington China-skeptics was horror.
We have since been reassured that Zoellick indeed has a special fondness for pandas derived from his service on a World Wildlife Fund advisory council, and that Mrs. Zoellick did indeed want such a photo. Zoellick also believed that his appearance with the panda would reassure the Chinese that he is still open to a "global dialogue"--provided the Chinese start to act like they're interested.
But more likely the Bush administration is near the end of its rope with China, which now looms as a new "peer competitor," against which the United States will have to devise a new Western Pacific strategy. Unless Beijing makes some significant contribution to world peace, nonproliferation, human rights, or--not to forget--its massive trade surplus with the United States by April, President Hu should not expect a warm welcome in Washington. And Deputy Secretary Zoellick is likely to chair the welcoming committee.
John Tkacik a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeared in the Weekly Standard