IMPLICATIONS OF THE NEW U.S. ADMINISTRATION FOR EAST
A CHINESE VIEW
by Shen Dingli
Since George W. Bush became the new U.S. President, the U.S. foreign
policy toward East Asia has seemed to present a somehow different contour.
While the U.S. has continued to adhere to its alliance relationship with
Japan and South Korea, it has much emphasized such traditional relations
with them, especially with Japan. The Bush team has suggested that
China-U.S. relations are of the nature of strategic competitor, rather
than what the Clinton Administration has termed as “strategic partnership.”
President Bush has even committed to defending Taiwan with “whatever” means.
The U.S. has until recently distanced from Clinton’s engagement policy
with North Korea. Such prioritization of the U.S. foreign policy
in regard to East Asia hardly promotes Beijing’s confidence of its relationship
with Washington. In fact, the recent air collision of the two countries
has further strained their relations.
The Bush Administration has distinguished itself by strongly advocating
the build-up of ballistic missile defense system. George W. Bush
has chosen Donald Rumsfeld as his Pentagon chief, for Rumsfeld’s hallmark
of strong proponent of missile defense. Bush’s propensity for missile
defense, nation-wide and theater-wide, as again indicated in his speech
delivered at National Defense University on May 1, has created a division
of opinions in East Asia in this regard. For its part, Beijing has
vehemently opposed to such defense, considering it most negating to China’s
limited strategic deterrence, and risking their bilateral relations as
the defense system is perceived to embolden the pro-independence force
in Taiwan. Missile defense is also viewed to promote a sense of being
safe if the U.S. steps in China’s domestic affairs.
Not only Bush’s decision of missile defense has alarmed China, his campaign
declaration of “defending Taiwan” bodes ill for Sino-U.S. relations.
During the Presidential campaign, George W. Bush committed to the aid of
Taiwan’s security. He has even repeated this commitment since assuming
the Presidency. Given White House’s decision of arms sales to Taiwan
this spring, Washington’s relations with Beijing have been further deteriorating.
Looking from Beijing, such three issues -- redefining bilateral relations,
transfer of advanced conventional weaponry to Taiwan, and determined development
and deployment of missile defense system -- have exposed their relations
to significant pressures. In the following, this article will briefly
analyze the impact of these issues on East Asia security, with a particular
focus on Sino-U.S. relations.
REDEFINING CHINA-U.S. RELATIONS
Since the Bush Administration shifted the view of China-U.S. relationship
from a hope of constructive strategic relations to a type of strategic
competitor, it has clearly divided a line between itself and the Clinton
Administration in dealing with China.
Honestly speaking, when President Jiang and Clinton met in Washington
in October 1997, and declared to build together a constructive strategic
partnership toward the 21st century, there was no inference that such a
relationship had existed. Instead, it reflected their hope of an
ideal relation due to its importance. Clearly, as a hope, it was
not a reality, but rather the direction to work toward. As such,
their bilateral relations deserve particular care. By nature Sino-U.S.
relations were, and still are, vulnerable to various challenges.
After all China and U.S. have vast difference in terms of institution and
Such vulnerability has been fully demonstrated since the declaration
of the “constructive strategic partnership”. President Clinton was
under attack for his “failure” of engagement with China. He was thought
to mislead, as simply the strategic partnership didn’t exist. In
the aftermath of bombing Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the term
of strategic partnership seems to have almost vanished from political dictionary
of both states.
A somber look at the bilateral relations would suggest that although
a strategic partnership is much desirable, it might indeed not have been
a reality, simply because of the U.S. weapons sale to Taiwan. Unless
such weapon transfer to a part of China would end, a strategic partnership
by definition is impossible. The two countries can at any time be
held hostage and be forced to show down by Taiwan if it would announce
Then, without an existing strategic partnership, Washington and Beijing
are still possible to engage in strategic cooperation. There are
many strategic issues in which they share common interests: stabilizing
situation of Korean Peninsula, stemming proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction, controlling spread of missiles, etc. Actually the two
countries have collaborated in these areas in the past decade. For
instance, they worked effectively in response to nuclear weapon tests in
South Asia in 1998.
Although strategic cooperation cannot suffice strategic partnership,
it is a helpful substance toward building a strategic partnership.
However, to point out the strategic competition between China and the U.S.,
it views their relations too much simplistically. Sino-U.S. relations
are more complex than simply a strategic competition or a strategic collaboration
Obviously nations and states compete, which provides incentives of their
development. Due to the importance of China and the United States,
their competition may often be strategic as well. However, one shall
note that competition is not the sole content of Beijing-Washington relationship.
It is even not yet the major part of their relations. China-U.S.
relations are a complicated mixture of cooperation, competition, as well
as rivalry. Their rivalry comes from the U.S. interference of China’s
domestic issue, most notably by selling weapons to Taiwan. However,
China for years has exercised restrain regarding this matter so as to stabilize
its relations with the U.S., and to stabilize cross-Straits relations.
Most observers would agree that on a number of issues Beijing and Washington
have sought cooperation and tried to avoid military confrontation.
It might be worthy not to omit the part of relations that are strategic
competition between China and the U.S. Nevertheless, one would not
be misled if the overall relations, consisting of cooperation, competition
and rivalry, could be noted. Emphasizing any single part of this
complex relationship could lead to over optimism or pessimism.
As a rising state, China feels a pressing and legitimate need to address
its unification problem, desirably through peaceful means. Such a
course of unification certainly would affect status quo balance of powers
and subsequently the U.S. interest. However, this is not a problem
caused by China. It is China to resolve a problem imposed on it.
A rising state isn’t automatically equal to a challenger. In reality
China’s national interest per se has long be challenged. If the Bush
Administration would retain its view of China as a strategic competitor,
it could only handle its relations with China with an incomplete understanding
that would undermine stability in East Asia.
Keeping weapon sales to Taiwan is an important approach of the U.S.
to balancing military powers across Taiwan Straits. The Taiwan Relation
Act of 1979 mandated U.S. right to intervene the Taiwan question at a crisis
time, and to sell arms to Taiwan at peacetime.
From 1979 to 2000, for 22 years the U.S. has transferred to Taiwan arms
worthy more than 40 billions. Since China and the U.S. “normalized”
their relations, the U.S. has taken special care to maintain superiority
of Taiwan’s air force over mainland in terms of advanced jet fighters.
The Bush Administration has taken one step further: it decided in April
that the U.S. would sell weapons this year for at least 4 billions, doubling
the annual average sale of the past two decades.
On the selling list are 8 diesel-electric submarines, 4 Kidd-class destroyers,
as well as 12 P3-C anti-submarine helicopters, among other items.
Apparently the Bush Administration is determined to cut mainland’s edge
of submarine force. Both P3-C and Kidd-class destroyer have strong
ant-submarine warfare (ASW) capability. The P3-C helicopters are
also capable of striking submarine from air. Most significantly,
the diesel-electric subs the U.S. is going to sell will not only provide
Taiwan ASW ability, but also an offensive means which destabilizes across
The U.S. often claimed that the weapons transferred to Taiwan are only
for defensive purpose. The Taiwan Relations Act required also providing
Taiwan with defensive equipment. The reality, however, has been often
not the case, and the 12 submarines the Bush government decided to sell
are particularly questionable. While China is opposed to any weapons
transfer to Taiwan, it is noted that submarines are especially troublesome:
submarine apparently is not a weapon only for defense.
As noted above, such sales are even not in compliance with the U.S.
long-held argument to justify its weapon transfer to Taiwan. Submarine
can disrupt, at both peacetime and crisis time, social order and civilian
life of the mainland. It can also inflict damage on the mainland
side even without absorbing an offense.
One would question why Taiwan couldn’t acquire submarines but the mainland
can. The answer is quite straightforward: as part of China, Taiwan
is not entitled to receive foreign weapons. Taiwan’s external security
shall be provided by a unified central Chinese government. Prior
to that, foreign arms to Taiwan are perceived to strengthen Taiwan’s resistance
to unification and therefore be harmful to China’s national interest.
Why the U.S. made a major breakthrough of its restrain on offensive
weapons sale to Taiwan? One may link this move to the U.S. perception
of China’s rise and its impact on Asia. To hedge against China, or
to prevent Mainland China from potentially challenging the U.S., America
may have sensed a need of checking and balancing a growing China.
On the Taiwan “security” question, the U.S. may need most urgently to provide
Taiwan with i) ASW capability, ii) theater missile defense (TMD) system,
and iii) air force superiority with third-generation jet fighters.
Given China’s strong opposition, Washington has decided not to equip
Taiwan with Aegis-class destroyers, a platform of Aegis radar system that
can detect attack missiles, coordinate and command the interception with
TMD. However, Washington has not excluded the possibility of selling
it to Taiwan at a later stage. In fact, the Bush Administration has
abolished the mechanism of Washington-Taipei annual meeting of April discussing
weapons sale of the year. In the future, the U.S. weapons sale to
Taiwan can be more quickly requested as long as Taiwan perceives a need.
This gives the U.S. a more readily available means to play the game of
weapon sales to Taiwan.
The stepping up of the U.S. weapons sale to Taiwan reflects the hardliner
position of the Bush Administration of its first few months. Consequently
this stance will be viewed negatively by Beijing, and arms race across
Taiwan Straits will ensue. Under this circumstance, “peace” in East
Asia secured by external interference is fragile and can’t last.
With Mainland China’s growth, military balance across the Straits will
tilt in favor of Beijing in the long run. Some even speculate that
this will come true in less that a decade. After all, arms sale doesn’t
equip Taiwan with fundamental security. It increases rather than
defuses resentment of Chinese people toward U.S. government.
BUILDING UP MISSILE DEFENSE
In recent years, a dividing issue between China and the U.S. is missile
defense. The U.S. claims new threat from “countries of concern” (previously
termed as “rogue” states). At theater level, the U.S. troops were
hit by scud missiles of Iraq in 1991. The U.S. National Intelligence
Estimates (NIEs) of the recent years have predicted that with a decade
few “countries of concern” will acquire international-range ability of
attacking the continental United States.
Given this estimate, U.S. Congress has made a law that declared, “Missile
defense is the U.S. national policy”. President Clinton approved
research and development of missile defenses. For National Missile
Defense (NMD), the U.S would deploy it should criteria of threat assessment,
financial affordability, technical feasibility, and international response
are met. Given only one “success” out of three interception flight
tests thus far, Clinton deferred last September his decision of deployment.
At the same time, the U.S. is continuing its TMD programs, with success
in its upper-tier THAAD already.
NMD has met almost global critique or opposition. Major players
of the world, Russia and China, strongly oppose to NMD as they deem NMD
destabilize the world order. NMD would make the U.S. immune of missile
attack or retaliation, while retaining its most powerful offensive capability
at the same time.
To be sure, no country in the world should be subject to missile threat.
In this context, the U.S. fear of missile attack on it needs to be studied,
and perhaps deserves sympathy. This said, the same argument applies
to other countries: no other countries should be threatened with missiles.
A review of the world security situation, however, suggests that the
U.S. NIE reports may not be substantiated. One would question if
those countries could really pose an ICBM threat to the U.S. in some ten
years. Also, if missile defense, as expensive as US$60-100 billions,
is the best approach to addressing such unfound threat?
What matters is that the U.S. cannot pursue its own security while undermining
other countries’ security interest. The U.S. possesses the most powerful
conventional and non-conventional offensive means. But, there have
been cases when the U.S. projected its military powers without much reason.
The U.S. used to bully China and is still militarily intervening China’s
internal business. Seeking security of one’s own while depriving
security of the others is not a selling logic, and obviously will meet
China might have less difficulty with the U.S. missile defense should
Washington have respected Beijing’s sovereignty. China has sound
reason to suspect the U.S. to abuse its own right of security. In
Beijing’s view, given a history of weapons sale to Taiwan for over half
a century, China has absolutely a necessity to oppose the U.S. move that
might reduce the strategic deterrence of Beijing. China doesn’t want
to threat the U.S., but cannot allow its security interest to be eroded
by America’s national missile defense.
On TMD question, China’s opposition to introducing it to Taiwan has
the same Taiwan root. On the one hand, TMD sale to Taiwan constitutes
a weapon sale, unacceptable to the mainland. On the other hand, Taiwan
may feel more secure after acquiring TND, more likely to prompt a crisis.
On May 1, 2001, President Bush announced his approval of missile defense’s
deployment. Media leak indicates that the U.S. may deploy ten interceptors
in Alaska by 2004 even if the system is not mature. In July this
year a new interception of NMD will be carried out. Though one cannot
exclude the political consideration behind this timeline, the deployment
itself would project a very negative shadow upon China’s perception of
the U.S. strategic intention.
Therefore, a U.S. move of NMD will force China to respond at strategic
and global level, which has become affordable now. If the U.S. would
transfer later advanced TMD system to Taiwan, China’s political relations
with the U.S. will be further weakened. None of these would improve
security situation in East Asia.
To sum up, the Bush Administration has taken a number of actions that
weaken China-U.S. relations. Viewing China as a “strategic competitor”,
and dealing with China accordingly, can be self-fulfilling. Elevating
weapons sales to Taiwan only creates newer difficulty for China’s unification,
rather than addressing true security of Taiwan. These actions could
not be perceived well. Rather, it reinforces China’s suspicion of
the U.S. strategic intention. With this background, it is unlikely
China would sit idle with America building up missile defense and revising/abolishing
Meanwhile, there may be no need for a rush of response. As long
as the U.S. policy is inherently flawed, there will be backlash upon the
Bush Administration. After all, the U.S. has an internal check and
balance institution, and it shall be able to adjust those parts of the
policies that undermine American interest and destabilize Sino-U.S. relations.
East Asia will be better off if the new U.S. government will be sooner
or later more sensible. The White House has already tried to fix
its mistake after speaking out defending Taiwan with “whatever” means.
Missile defense deployment has yet to take time and no one can guarantee
its success. So long as one realizes the complexity of China-U.S.
relations, one has to deal with it with international norm and mutual respect
when pursuing respective national interest. Their handling of EP-3
issue has proven that both administrations have a willingness and ability
to treat their relations in a problem-solving way. In this context,
their constructive and healthy cooperation and competition shall be a stabilizer
for East Asia.