China Policy: Belligerence or Inexperience?

Following President Bush's unprecedented public commitment of support for the defense of Taiwan, relations with China appeared headed for further deterioration with the announcement that the administration may allow Taiwanese President Chen Shu-bian to meet with members of congress during stopovers on a trip to Latin America. The granting of a visa to President Lee Teng-hui in 1995 led to the discontinuation of talks on the future of Taiwan, which have not resumed.

Bush's statement Wednesday was the strongest commitment of support for Taiwan's defense by any U.S. president. Bush told ABC News he would do "whatever it took," including the use of U.S. troops. In the context of a reported approval of a major arms sale to Taiwan, the statement appeared to reverse thirty years of deliberately ambiguous policy by seven administrations, concerning a U.S. response to hostilities between Taiwan and mainland China. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Assistant Secretary of State Wolfowitz previously have advocated eliminating any ambiguity about defending Taiwan. But Bush later told CNN that the statement did not represent a change in policy, and that the U.S. still supported the "one china" principle, leaving it unclear whether the earlier statement had been intentionally provocative or a major gaffe.

China experts were appalled by the Bush remark. Former ambassador James Sasser suggested that Bush may not have realized the implications of the comment, which could be interpreted as supporting Taiwanese independence. "I think the president's going to reflect on this, and find that the Congress is going to have something to say about whether or not we want to give these sorts of assurances to Taiwan."

The Chinese government called U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher to the Foreign Ministry Wednesday to protest the arms sales approval, but did not comment on Bush's statement. The Bush administration reportedly will offer Taiwan four destroyers, eight diesel submarines, twelve submarine-hunting surveillance planes, the Palladin self-propelled artillery system, mine sweeping helicopters, amphibious assault vehicles, torpedoes, Harpoon missiles, and brief them on anti-missile software currently under development for the Pentagon.

Chinese Foreign Ministry response Thursday was also somehwat measured, warning that Washington was heading down "a dangerous road." But the rhetoric escalated on Friday when a spokesman for Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office angrily restated a determination to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, saying there was nothing to discuss until Taiwan accepted the "one China" policy. "No force can stop the Chinese prople from completing the grand task of reunifying the motherland," he said in a tirade clearly prompted by Bush's recent remarks. "Taiwan is Chinese territory. It is not a territory of the United States....No matter who tries to interfere in China's internal affairs and violate China's sovereignity, only they will pay the price."

Earlier this month the Bush administration succeeded in obtaining the return of the 24-person crew of the EP-3 spy plane that was forced to land on the island of Hainan after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter. But initial hard line posturing, in the context of the unilateralism that characterized Bush administration foreign policy, did damage to U.S-China that will be difficult to undo. With Wednesday's pronouncement Bush returned to his confrontational rhetoric.

On April 12 Bush called the decision to detain the plane's crew for 11 days "inconsistent with the kind of relations we have both said we want to have," and added "I will ask our United States representative to ask the tough questions about China's recent practice of challenging United States aircraft operating legally in international airspace.... I will always stand squarely for American interests and American values." Initially he had declared the plane sovereign American property and called for "the prompt and safe return" of the plane and its crew. "Failure of the Chinese government to react promptly to our request is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice and with the express desire of both our countries for better relations." Chinese media called the statement a "demand."

Use of language that is inflammatory in a different cultural setting is not surprising, given the Bush's lack of foreign affairs experience, and his administration's inexperience dealing with China. Ironically it was conservatives who complained the loudest during the EP-3 cre's week-long detention. ABC News reported that former Republican administration officials termed Secretary of State Powell's approach "desperate", and pointed to his "complete lack of knowledge when it comes to China," a designation he shared with security adviser Condoleeza Rice and others.

The Chinese history of serial colonization makes them especially sensitive to territorial disputes. Moreover, the Chinese government and people are still bitter over the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade two years ago. Combine those factors with Bush's recent unilateral actions - dismissing Russian diplomats, canceling talks with North Korea, disavowing the Kyoto accord - and it is easy to see how Bush appears to the Chinese as an impulsive maverick.

According to The Village Voice, the South China Morning Post reported that one of the Chinese pilots intercepting the EP-3 had requested permission to fire on the plane. "The officials at ground control were coolheaded. . . . [He] could have shot down the plane, but that would have meant the death of 24 U.S. airmen. It would have been an act of war, whereas the collision was an accident."

James Bamford, author of Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultrasecret National Security Agency, From the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century, has written that the slow, low-flying propeller-driven EP-3 planes are used for electronic espionage against China precisely because they will be viewed as a provocation. In a recent Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, Bamford recounts the history of spy-plane activity nearly provoking armed conflict. In a television interview this week Bamford remarked that a North Vietnamese attack on a naval reconnaissance patrol in disputed waters led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and ultimately to the Vietnam War.

Experienced China watchers have suggested that it might have been possible early on to defuse the Hainan spy-plan incident, if a conciliatory tone had been taken from the outset. As Anthony Lewis reported on April 7, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, recommended that Secretary of State Colin Powell, should have "telephoned the Chinese foreign minister and said to him, look, there has been an incident in the air. We don't know precisely what has happened. Let's appoint a joint commission to investigate, and I regret or I'm sorry to hear that your pilot was killed. It's very unfortunate. And our plane is landing on your soil. Please take good care of it and release it as soon as possible."

By the time the confrontational tone changed extremists here and in China had already gained considerable momentum. While the Guardian UK echoed European sentiment in cautioning against the temptation to "show China who's boss," the proposed sale arms sales to Taiwan gained support in congress where many believe the spy-plane standoff reflected increasing influence of the Chinese military in the government. The administration may also use the incident as a pretext to try to delay China's entry into the World Trade Organization. If relations continue to deteriorate the U.S. could try to prevent China's bid for the 2008 Olympic games.

Hostile rhetoric has been part of the Bush administration's approach to China since the days of the presidential campaign. Today Bush aides referred reporters to a statement made in March 2000 during a debate among Republican primary candidates in which Bush said, "The Chinese can figure out what that means, but that's going to mean a resolute stand on my part." And when he redefined China from "strategic partner" to "strategic competitor" Bush either committed another unknowing cross-cultural faux pas, or made an intentionally confrontational statement. Appearing on the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Senator Christopher Dodd pointed out that when the phrase is translated into Chinese, it takes on a meaning much closer to "rival" than say manufacturer of a competing brand of merchandise.

Continued deterioration in relations with China could benefit a familiar group of Bush supporters - big business, especially oil. One of the reasons the U.S. continues to arm Taiwan is to ensure that <A HREF=""">nearby shipping lanes remain open for U.S. oil tankers. As the world's second largest energy consumer, China imports close to 50% of its oil from the Middle East. Easy access to oil is considered by some observers to be the key to China's integration in the global economy.

Chinese oil specialists were identified in Iraq during the recent U.S.-sponsored bombing. China has also consistently opposed Iraqi oil sanctions in the United Nations. Conservatives see this as a threat to U.S oil business in the Middle East. China currently imports oil primarily from Muscat and Oman, but clearly would like additional inexpensive sources.

The arms to be sold to Taiwan also constitute good old-fashioned political patronage. The destroyers are built in Mississippi, home state of Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, and Maine, home of Republican Senator Olympia Snowe (who the Bush administration would no doubt love to co-opt). General Electric (parent company of NBC) builds the ship engines, and the sophisticated electronics would be manufactured by a gaggle of those companies whose stocks have recently been taking the NASDAQ to new lows.

The reported decision allowing President Chen to meet with members of congress only heighthened the contrasting views of George Bush's China policy, and foreign policy in general -- an impulsive maverick lacking both experience and cultural sensitivity, or a belligerent dispenser of patronage,


Browne, Andrew. "Can U.S.-China relations get worse? Oh, yes they can!" Reuters 27 Apr. 2001.

King, John and Mike Chinoy "Bush: Taiwan defense pledge no change in policy" CNN 25 Apr. 2001.

Lewis, Anthony "Molehill Into Mountain," NY Times 7 Apr. 2001.

Schweid, Barry "US Crew Didn't Cause Accident," Associated Press, 12 Apr. 2001

Woolacott, Martin, "The view from London: 'Bush has painted himself into a corner',"The Guardian UK 12 Apr. 2001

Cooper, Rebecca J. "With Friends Like These... Conservatives Bash Their President Over China," 9 Apr. 2001

Ridgeway, James. "Please, Y'all, Give Back Our Plane Bush Not Ready for China Crisis," The Village Voice 11 Apr. 2001

Bamford, James. "The Dangers of Spy Planes," NY Times 5 Apr. 2001