US Simply Muddling Through on 'China Policy'
by Leon Hadar
As US President
George W Bush concludes his visit to China, it's important to restate
the obvious: Washington, under the Bush administration doesn't have
a "China Policy."
it comes to dealing with the emerging East Asian giant, the White
House has adopted a policy of "muddling through," by responding
to conflicting pressures at home – from economic nationalists and
protectionists, neoconservative ideologues and Christian Right activists
who demand a tough stand against Beijing, and from free-traders
and Corporate America who want to engage China. On top of that,
there are the unexpected crises like the collision between a US
spy plane gathering intelligence off the Chinese mainland and a
Chinese fighter on April 1, 2001.
While Mr. Bush
and his aides have attempted to contrast their more "competitive"
policy towards China with the "cooperative" approach advanced
by ex-president Bill Clinton, neither Mr. Bush nor his top officials
have presented a coherent perspective of how the US should deal
In a major
speech to the National Committee on US-China Relations in September,
Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick did try to discuss some
of the principles guiding US policy, but ended up with what amounted
to a call to avoid confrontation with the Chinese. Instead of explaining
what the US should do, Mr. Zoellick mostly lectured China on how
to "to become a responsible stakeholder in the international
system" and to refrain from antagonizing the Americans.
to come up with a clear articulation of the US policy towards China
and to forge a constructive Sino-American partnership like the one
that began to take shape under the Clinton presidency, President
Bush seems to have given a green light to bureaucratic agencies,
interest groups and Congress to steer the direction of the relationship
with Beijing. The protectionist forces in Congress have helped drive
the anti-Chinese momentum in Washington by blaming Beijing and its
trade and currency exchange policy for the erosion in the US industrial
administration has allowed the China bashers on Capitol Hill to
derail the proposed deal between Unocal Corporation and Chinese
National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), creating the impression
that the Chinese are engaged in a massive undertaking to take control
of the world's energy resources and deprive America's access to
Is it surprising,
therefore, that many Americans have concluded that China is trying
to "steal" American jobs and to "dominate" the
global oil markets? Even more disturbing is the way the neoconservative
strategists in the Pentagon have been able to take the lead in drawing
the outlines of what, for all practical purposes, is a policy of
this neocon view of China is author Robert Kaplan in an article
titled "How We Would Fight China" in Atlantic magazine's
June issue. He suggested that "the American military contest
with China in the Pacific will define the 21st century," and
that "China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia
policies advanced by the Pentagon and statements made by its officials
indicate a commitment to the view that Beijing has emerged as Washington's
post-Cold War peer competitor.
in the year, the Bush administration adopted an official declaration
calling for enhanced security ties between the US and Japan, AKA
the "Joint Statement of the US-Japan Security Consultative
Committee," which was perceived in Beijing and the rest of
East Asia as part of a strategy to construct an anti-Chinese alliance
in the region – especially since, for the first time, it stated
the need for a policy coordination between Washington and Tokyo
with regard to Taiwan.
Defense Donald Rumsfeld's speech in Singapore in June added to the
growing sense that the Pentagon regards China as a threat, especially
since it even questioned China's need to build up its military,
by suggesting that "no nation threatens China."
the Pentagon's recent report on Chinese combat capabilities titled
The Military Power of the People's Republic of China seemed to raise
more alarms about China's intentions, arguing that "the pace
and scope of China's military buildup are, already, such as to put
regional military balances at risk" and current trends in China's
military modernization potentially pose "a credible threat
to modern militaries operating in the region."
and analysts monitoring these and other American policy statements
and steps, including the US military presence in the region and
the selling of US weapons to Taiwan, are bound to conclude that
Washington is intent on challenging China's rise as an economic
and military power and on widening American power at the expense
of China's development, further increasing anti-American sentiment
there was no reason for anyone in Washington to conclude that China's
effort to gain access to oil and natural gas was a threat to US
"economic security." The interference by Congress with
what is basically a market process, by preventing the planned purchase
of UNOCAL by CNOOC, was more than just an attempt at advancing a
costly mercantilist strategy.
It was a sign
that Congress and the Pentagon could adopt policies aimed at harming
what Chinese President Hu Jintao has termed as his country's "peaceful
development," as a way to describe China's rise and as a strategy
for dealing with the US and other nations.
In a way, by
taking steps to derail the Unocal-CNOOC deal, Washington is helping
set in motion what could be only described as a self-fulfilling
prophecy. Since China's energy needs will only grow, it would have
no choice in light of the US policies but to form special economic
or foreign policy relationships in the Middle East, Africa and Latin
America, including with so-called "rogue nations" like
Iran, Sudan and Venezuela.
would then accuse the Chinese of attempting to prop up anti-American
regimes around the world and in trying to challenge the US position
in the Middle East and Central America. A US strategy to "contain"
China would then be spun by the neoconservative ideologues as a
"defensive" policy targeting an "aggressive"
Why are the
Chinese strengthening their ties with anti-US populist Hugo Chavez
in Venezuela or with the mullahs in Teheran? Well, because the Chinese
are intent on harming US interests worldwide, the neocons would
respond. The result of these conflicting American and Chinese perceptions
(or misperceptions) could be the kind of vicious circle that in
the past created the conditions for conflicts between great nations.
Bush, during his visit, will have an opportunity to set the stage
for a Sino-US dialogue in which both sides should discover that
their core national economic and security interests are really not
at odds, and that, if anything, China's "peaceful development"
is compatible with long-term US goals.
that dialogue takes place, Mr. Bush needs to take control of Washington's
China Policy and steer it in the right direction.
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).
© 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.