A Curiously Quiet China

February 21, 2002 • Commentary

As President Bush travels to East Asia to hold summit meetings with the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and China, he does so against a backdrop of dramatically improved U.S.-Chinese relations. Tensions between the two countries have eased considerably since the initial period of the Bush presidency.

Various commentators around the world have noted Beijing’s surprisingly mild reaction to revelations that electronic listening devices had been planted on President Jiang Zemin’s American‐​built airplane. Even though Chinese officials implied that the bugging was a U.S. intelligence operation, there were no official charges of spying nor did the state‐​controlled media launch an anti-U.S. propaganda campaign. Indeed, the media virtually ignored the incident.

That reaction was in sharp contrast to the shrill statements from Chinese leaders and the massive propaganda offensive that followed the collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet in April 2001. The reasons for that difference suggest a number of things about China’s internal politics and foreign policy.

Indeed, the April 2001 episode was the last time that Beijing adopted an openly confrontational policy toward Washington. Even before the recent bugging incident, Chinese leaders had responded with surprising restraint to several U.S. actions that might have been expected to provoke harsh responses. When the Bush administration announced the most extensive arms sale package in years to Taiwan in the spring of 2001, Beijing expressed bland, perfunctory protests. The Chinese government actually worked with the United States to gain cooperation from Beijing’s long‐​time ally, Pakistan, in the war against Osama bin Laden’s Al‐​Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban government in Afghanistan–despite the possibility of a long‐​term U.S. military presence in Pakistan. And when the United States announced its withdrawal from the Anti‐​Ballistic Missile Treaty in late 2001, Beijing’s protests were decidedly muted, even though a U.S. missile defense system would erode the credibility of China’s small nuclear deterrent.

It is inherently difficult to speculate about the motives for policy initiatives in a secretive, authoritarian political system like that of China. Nevertheless, several factors appear to account for Beijing’s unusual restraint in recent months.

First, the Chinese Communist Party elite wants to avoid any international controversy before the upcoming Party congress and the formal transfer of power from Jiang to heir apparent Hu Jintao. It is reasonable to assume that members of the elite are currently preoccupied with maneuvering for advantage during the leadership transition.

Second, China’s leaders desperately need to preserve and expand the economic relationship with the United States. The global economic slowdown, and especially the deepening recession in East Asia, has made the U.S. market more crucial than ever. China cannot let quarrels over other matters jeopardize access to that market. Without a continued expansion of trade with the United States, it would be difficult for Beijing to sustain economic growth rates in the high single digits. Yet if that growth rate declines, the already alarming number of unemployed Chinese in the major cities could burgeon rapidly and pose a danger to the regime.

Finally, Chinese leaders are increasingly alarmed at the signs of a growing rapprochement between the United States and China’s traditional rival, India. Beijing worries (with good reason) about the possible emergence of a U.S.-Indian “strategic partnership” directed against China. The Chinese response to the warming relations between Washington and New Delhi has been to try to improve China’s own relations with both capitals. At the height of the Cold War, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that it always ought to be an objective of the United States to have closer relations with both Moscow and Beijing than they had with each other. China’s leaders seem to have made it their goal to have closer relations with both the United States and India than those two countries have with each other.

It is hard to predict how long China’s accommodating policy toward the United States will last. Once the leadership transition takes place, we may see a more assertive, if not confrontational, policy reemerge. Yet there is reason to think that this will not occur anytime soon. The other two factors encouraging a conciliatory policy by Beijing will still be present even after Hu’s leadership team replaces Jiang’s. If that is the case, the improvement in relations between China and the United States may persist for an extended period of time.

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