September 23, 2002

September 23, 2002 | Commentary on Asia

ED092302:  Why Jiang Should Worry

As Chinese President Jiang Zemin prepares for his long-awaited Oct. 25 summit at the Bush family ranch in Crawford, Texas, he must be scratching his head over the new document his America hands have just brought him. Last Friday U.S. President George W. Bush submitted to Congress a tough but articulate "National Security Strategy of the United States of America," a policy paper which has major implications for U.S.-China relations.

While American media attention has inevitably focused upon its elaboration on the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 doctrine of preemptive strikes against terrorists and rogue states, Mr. Jiang and his aides will be more interested in other parts of the 35-page document espousing what they are sure to see as a new American strategy directed against Beijing. They will have read that Mr. Bush's National Security Council spent "months" crafting its language, which officials told the New York Times was "both a maturation and explanation" of the president's vision of American power. Mr. Bush is said to have "edited the document heavily."

That is why Mr. Jiang has so much cause to be concerned. He arrives at Crawford under tremendous pressure from his own Politburo Standing Committee, several members of whom have reportedly called on Mr. Jiang to retire sooner rather than later. On Nov. 8, the Chinese Communist Party will convene its 16th Party Congress to decide the leadership succession, and Mr. Jiang has been touting his deft handling of Sino-U.S. relations over the past decade as grounds for him to stay on in these uncertain times.

No doubt Mr. Jiang had hoped to use the Crawford summit to bolster his position by offering Chinese acquiescence in an American military invasion of Iraq in exchange for concessions from Washington over Taiwan. But the National Security Strategy strongly suggests the Bush administration has no intention of allowing any such haggling at the Crawford Summit.

From the very beginning of the White House document, America's policy aims and strategic goals are laid out as "political freedom," "peaceful relations with other states and respect for human dignity." The nation's challenge is the struggle of "destructive totalitarian visions versus freedom and equality." The mission: to "defeat these threats to our nation, allies and friends."

In case anyone -- especially the Chinese -- are in any doubt as to just who America's "friends" might be, page three of the strategy document notes that America has witnessed "democratic processes take hold among our friends in Taiwan." Taiwan, in fact, is the first foreign country named in the document. Later on, in a section on economic growth, the document gives the Bush administration a self-congratulatory pat on the back for clearing the way for "the accession of China and a democratic Taiwan" to the World Trade Organization.

To the uninitiated, this may seem an anodyne formula, but it is a term now creeping into the Bush administration's foreign policy lexicon. At Mr. Bush's Aug. 13 economic forum at Baylor University in Texas, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick made a point of referring to "democratic Taiwan" on two separate occasions. This did not go unnoticed in Beijing, and China will be watching anxiously to see if "democratic Taiwan" becomes the Bush administration's new name for the island.

This, in itself, is enough to cause pathological hyperventilation among some Chinese leaders. But the White House strategy document doesn't stop there. It also devotes a full page to explaining the U.S. strategy for dealing with "rogue states" involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. This too will annoy the Chinese because, aside from Taiwan, the biggest point of friction between Washington and Beijing has been American anger at China's proliferation of chemical weapons-related equipment to Iran, and missile parts to Libya, Syria and Pakistan. Three times since last September, the U.S. State Department has sanctioned Chinese individuals, firms and government-owned entities for violations of nonproliferation promises.

The Chinese had hoped that their adoption of an "export control law" last month would ease tensions with the U.S. Indeed, tensions did abate somewhat during Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's visit to Beijing, and China's subsequent Dutch-uncle warnings to Iraq's foreign minister about Baghdad's bad behavior. But Mr. Armitage's ambivalent stance in Beijing on Taiwanese independence (he said the U.S. does not support it, but does not necessarily oppose it) left his Chinese hosts unsettled.

Beijing is also likely to see other unwelcome hidden messages -- whether real or imagined -- elsewhere in the strategy document. For instance, it warns that "for rogue states, these weapons are tools of intimidation and military aggression against their neighbors" intended to "blackmail the United States and our allies to prevent us from deterring or repelling the aggressive behavior of rogue states."

To readers in Beijing, this has an uncomfortably familiar ring. In December 1995, according to the New York Times, Chinese General Xiong Guangkai told a former U.S. assistant defense secretary that China could act militarily against Taiwan without fear because U.S. leaders "care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan," an apparent indirect threat to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. if it ever came to Taiwan's defense. When Mr. Bush's strategy declares "our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing or equaling the power of the United States," the Chinese leadership must surely sense that the president is talking directly to them.

The Chinese will also note that the U.S. strategy welcomes "the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China -- but insists that "the democratic development of China is crucial to that future." For years, Beijing has glowered suspiciously at Washington's putative strategy of promoting a "peaceful evolution" of China to a democracy from a totalitarian dictatorship. And for years Beijing has assumed that Americans had a hand in fomenting the pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The strategy document will further feed those anxieties.

Now they see Washington as warning them yet again that their pursuit of "advanced military capabilities" threatens others in the Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan, needless to say, is the one most threatened. And the strategy paper forthrightly states there are "profound disagreements" between Washington and Beijing: "our commitment to the self-defense of Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act is one" (human rights is another, proliferation is a third).

None of this -- not a word -- is calculated to soothe Mr. Jiang's sensibilities prior to the Crawford summit. On the contrary, it will send a message, whether intended or not, that President Bush is not in the mood to bargain at Crawford. Mr. Jiang is likely to be particularly stung by these subtle but painful barbs because they will undermine his reputation in the Politburo as an adroit handler of relations with America. Judging from this document, he now risks returning home from the summit diminished in stature and in a weaker position to face the dogfight at the Communist Party Congress the following week. This may ease the transfer of power to a new generation of leaders in Beijing. And while it may puzzle Mr. Jiang, others will find it perfectly understandable. 

John J. Tkacik, Jr., a 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.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

Originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal.