Bush Team Split on China, but Realists Hold the Reins
by Jim Lobe
November 5, 2003

The major new player on the National Security Council (NSC), Robert Blackwill, attended as did the chief Asia specialist at the State Department, Assistant Secretary James Kelly.

But when it came time at the Chinese embassy's dinner last week to lift glasses in honor of the visiting guest, Beijing's defense minister, Gen. Cao Gangchuan, his official host in Washington, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, was nowhere to be found.

Instead, it was the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, Christopher "Ryan" Henry – not exactly a household name in Washington – who rose, apologized for his boss' absence, and proffered the traditional toast for good wishes and enduring friendship.

Perhaps it was a way for Rumsfeld, long a leader of the anti-China faction within the Bush administration – who in any event disdains diplomatic niceties – to convey his resentment about having to upgrade military relations with Beijing.

Despite the warming in bilateral ties that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, in Rumsfeld's eyes China remains Washington's long-term "strategic rival" in Asia and on the global stage.

But while he and Vice President Dick Cheney, another China hawk, have been preoccupied with Iraq and the larger "war on terror," China's position as a major player – and one on which Washington must increasingly depend – has become ever more secure.

For example, despite lobbying from the hawks, President George W. Bush even "dropped by" to say hello during Cao's White House meetings.

It appears that Beijing could teach Bush hard-liners a good deal about the uses of "soft power."

"During the 1990s, much of US strategic thinking focused on ... the process of China's emergence as a great power in East Asia," wrote James Przystup, a veteran-China-watcher, now with the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, in a much-circulated review of Beijing's recent performance.

"That thinking is now passé. Today, China is East Asia's great power," he argued, adding that Beijing is becoming the "go-to-guy" in East Asia after 50 years of US dominance, whether the hawks like it or not.

In just the last few weeks, Beijing has moved deftly in the international arena in ways that have clearly undermined the hard-liners.

It played a critical – albeit relatively unnoticed – role in securing approval of the US-proposed UN Security Council resolution on Iraq, for example, by announcing its support before Russia, France and Germany were prepared to do so.

That it did so "in order to maintain this multinational collective security system" was particularly telling.

In a curious role reversal from the 1990s, when the Clinton administration defended its engagement with Beijing by citing the importance of integrating the nation into an international system that would constrain any destabilizing behavior, Beijing now appears determined to use multilateral forums to restrain the unilateralist impulses of the Bush administration..

"China sees its interests are much more embedded in the international system," according to Banning Garrett, a China specialist at the Atlantic Council, a mainstream think tank here.

"If the system goes down, they go down, and the leader of the system, like it or not, is the US, so they need to work closely with Washington to survive, especially with global problems."

In addition to the Iraq resolution, China has also emerged as the main repository of Bush's hopes for reaching a peaceful settlement to the ongoing nuclear crisis over North Korea, a resolution that the president, increasingly desperate over Iraq, now appears much more attracted to than ever before.

Beijing has also taken major steps towards improving relations with Japan, and even persuaded visiting Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to recognize China's sovereignty over Tibet and to launch a program of unprecedented joint military exercises.

By all accounts, Hu thoroughly upstaged Bush in Australia – which the Pentagon hawks hope to use for military bases as part of their "forward-leaning" posture against "you know who" in East Asia – in back-to-back appearances after the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum last month.

The bottom line, according to Przystup: "(W)hile the countries of the region are undoubtedly looking to the US to balance, or at least leaven China's growing influence, they are unlikely to be interested in getting caught up in what Beijing may perceive as a 'sub rosa' containment strategy."

That spells a major problem for the administration's hawks, who have wooed India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, for example, with containment very much in mind.

Indeed, it now appears that, despite rising tensions over the bilateral trade balance and the value of the yuan, the realists centered in the State Department have decisively wrested control over US China policy, thanks largely to Beijing's own behavior and rapidly growing influence.

"The administration has come to the conclusion that strategic engagement is the only viable option on relations with China," says Garrett.

That Washington's major problem today is over currency, he adds, illustrates the degree to which Sino-US relations have stabilized. "This is the kind of problem we have with Japan," Garrett said. "We're at the point where we can have differences in one area without it threatening other aspects of the relationship."

Alan Romberg, a retired State Department Asia expert now with the Henry Stimson Center, a think tank that focuses mainly on arms issues, agrees.

"China seems to have made a strategic decision early in this administration to avoid confrontation with the US on any major issue if that is at all possible." The Iraq vote, he said, has served the purpose not only of ensuring the UN's relevance but also of cementing the relationship with Washington.

None of this is good news to the hard-liners who see Beijing's recent moves as tactical rather that strategic and thus designed precisely to constrain US freedom of action in webs of multilateral agreements and forums.

But they are clearly losing the argument within the administration.

Rumsfeld ostentatiously dragged his feet on restoring military ties that were suspended in the spring of 2001, when Beijing held a US surveillance aircraft and its crew for two weeks after they made an emergency landing on Hainan island following a collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

Despite a White House decision to begin normalizing those ties after Sept. 11 in the greater interest of the "war on terrorism," Rumsfeld did what he could to slow the process, even refusing to permit the military attaché posted to the Chinese embassy to enter the Pentagon for 16 months.

In recent months, the normalization process, including port visits by two US navy vessels, has picked up speed. And, in what were described in the Pentagon's laconic lexicon as "productive and constructive talks," Rumsfeld and Cao agreed to further exchanges during 2004.

Significantly, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was more enthusiastic about Cao's meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, even taking a dig at the Pentagon.

Not only did the two men have a "very friendly meeting (and) a very broad-ranging discussion," he said, but Powell expressed his "strong support for the progress that's been made in the relationship, and the hope that we can see even more progress, including on the military-to-military relationship"

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Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since the well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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