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Monday, 27 December, 1999, 09:07 GMT
China-US: A turbulent year

China and the USA: A volatile relationship


By China affairs analyst James Miles

If there is one relationship that more than any other will shape the world's diplomatic contours in the 21st century it is likely to be that between China and America.

But in the last year of the 20th century, the volatile nature of that relationship was made abundantly evident.


For all the talk of their desire to forge a strategic partnership, the two countries appeared increasingly unsure where their relationship was heading.

Some of President Clinton's critics in Washington blame the sudden downturn in the relationship early this year on what they see as the president's failure to take the lead in persuading Congress of the importance of improving ties with Beijing.

They say he built up unrealistic expectations with his visit to China in 1998, such that he was wrong footed when China began rounding up dissidents later that year and allegations began to emerge of a systematic espionage campaign by China involving the theft of American military secrets.


Clinton visited China in 1998
Many observers believe it was fear of rejection by an anti-China Congress that prompted President Clinton to decide not to accept the trade concessions that were offered by the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji during his visit to the United States in April.

It is believed that president's decision undermined the political position of Mr Zhu, ironically a man widely seen as one of the most eager in the Chinese leadership to get China into the World Trade Organisation and open up its markets.

Worsening relations

In April, however, President Clinton had other preoccupations. Nato had just launched a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The fact that China, despite its denunciations of the Nato action, had decided its prime minister should proceed as scheduled to Washington, was doubtless good news to Mr Clinton.

But he clearly felt he could not afford to fight two foreign policy battles at once by reaching what would undoubtedly be a controversial agreement with Mr Zhu on Beijing's accession to the WTO.

The timing of the Nato campaign proved highly unfortunate for the Sino-US relationship. China was already worried by what it saw as a growing Cold War mentality among US politicians.

It believed this was demonstrated by the furious response of many members of Congress to the allegations that China had stolen American technology that would help it to deploy miniaturised nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Beijing denied the allegations, which were made by a bipartisan Congressional committee led by a Republican, Christopher Cox.

It was not just the views of Congress that were alarming to Beijing. In China's view, the Clinton administration was also showing signs of a Cold War mentality in its attempts to strengthen its military alliances in Asia.

Military concerns

Two years earlier, the United States had agreed with Japan on new guidelines for their defence cooperation that would allow Japan to provide support for American forces in a regional conflict. While Mr Zhu was in America, Japan's parliament was moving close to enshrining the guidelines in Japanese law.

China feared the enhanced alliance could be invoked in the event of a clash in the Taiwan Strait between Chinese and American forces.

Officials saw the pact as part of an attempt by the United States to contain China in the same way that the United States had tried to curb the expansion of Soviet power during the Cold War.

The Chinese were also becoming increasingly worried about the Theatre Missile Defence system being jointly researched by the United States and Japan. In theory, at least, this technology could render China's missile force useless and thus tip the balance of power in the region overwhelmingly in favour of America and its allies.

Beijing was outraged by suggestions in America that Taiwan should be protected by the system too. The US administration itself refused to rule out this possibility.

Divisions over Kosovo


Embassy bombing killed 3 and injured 27
The Nato action against Yugoslavia confirmed in China's mind that the United States was bent on global domination and that it was prepared to deploy its military power without reference to the United Nations Security Council, in which China has a right of veto.

China feared the United States might one day use similar pretexts for intervening in the Taiwan Strait or in other disputes involving what Beijing regards as its territory. China's official media lashed out against what they described as this evidence of American 'unilateralism'.

The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May triggered an outpouring of anti-American feeling unprecedented in the history of the reform era. The government refused to accept America's explanation that the bombing was a mistake.

Ordinary people too found it difficult to believe, and tens of thousands of people besieged American and British diplomatic missions across China for three or four tumultuous days.

The anti-Western protests gave vent to a wide variety of pent-up feelings in China:

  • Complaints about perceived American attempts to bully China into adopting its human rights values
  • Grievances over American opposition to Beijing's bid in 1993 to host the Olympic Games
  • Anger over America's exacting conditions for WTO membership
  • Resentment of the way icons of American consumer culture such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken were becoming so ubiquitous in Chinese cities
  • Resentment of the Chinese Government for allegedly failing to stand up to the Americans

Realising the protests could turn against the Communist Party leadership itself, the authorities quickly abandoned their initial strategy of encouraging the demonstrations.


Anti-Western protests gave vent to pent-up feelings
The embassy bombing caused the Sino-US relationship to plunge to its lowest ebb since the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96 when the United States moved two aircraft carrier battle groups close to Taiwan as a warning to China not to attack the island.

That crisis prompted President Clinton to pay greater attention to the danger of confrontation between the United States and China. In the following months he quickly moved to restore normal top level contacts that had been suspended since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Taiwan tensions

Beijing's furious reaction in July this year to the announcement by Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui that relations between the mainland and Taiwan should be considered as state-to-state raised again the spectre of war in the Taiwan Strait.

The mainland's media were again filled with bellicose rhetoric. Washington had all the more reason this time to be alarmed, given the US Defence Department's report earlier in the year that China's deployments of missiles on the coast facing Taiwan were increasing, and were likely to grow exponentially by 2005, giving it an overwhelming advantage over Taiwan's defences.

The United States was worried not just about what China might do. It feared that President Lee was becoming dangerously unpredictable.

Despite the far-reaching significance of his 'two states theory,' President Lee had not given the Americans advance warning of his intention to announce it. Taiwan's subsequent efforts to explain that the concept did not really amount to a change of policy gave little comfort to officials in Washington.

President Lee's remarks, however, did give President Clinton an opportunity to regain some of the ground lost by the bombing of China's embassy. He quickly reasserted Washington's 'one China' policy, thus rejecting President Lee's notion that there were effectively two Chinas: the People's Republic of China on the mainland and Republic of China on Taiwan. Beijing was delighted by Clinton's response.

As Beijing's anger over the Belgrade bombing subsided, relations between the two countries appeared to change course once again. China resumed talks with America on its WTO bid which it had suspended after the bombing.

Trade deal


Clinton: Tried to improve relations
In November, the two countries reached a deal on China¿s accession to the WTO, marking the end of a 13-year diplomatic struggle. Also that month, the Pentagon's top China expert and a two-star general from the US Pacific Command travelled to China for the first military-to-military talks since defence ties were cut by Beijing in May.

But serious problems remain. Indeed, in the year 2000 there are indications that the relationship could face serious trouble once again.

President Clinton may well persuade Congress to back the WTO deal. But US politicians will be anxious too to prove to their constituents that they are not soft on China. In November, Americans will elect a new president, and attacking China is often seen by politicians as a way of winning votes.

It is possible, therefore, that in the coming months members of Congress will defy the administration by supporting measures to boost Taiwan's defences.

A proposal by some members to adopt what is known as the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act could well gain significant support. This legislation would include a provision for the sale of submarines and anti-missile equipment to Taiwan and the training of Taiwanese military officers in America. It would undoubtedly, if passed, impose a severe strain on Sino-US ties.

Strains over human rights


Human rights remain a contentious issue
Human rights and trade disputes will also continue to plague the relationship. China's ongoing suppression of the quasi-religious Falun Gong movement and the underground China Democracy Party is doing little to bolster the efforts of US officials to persuade Congress that engagement with China is the best way of improving human rights conditions there.

The US State Department's annual report on human rights in China early next year is likely to be even more critical than it was in 1999.

And it is not just in the United States that an impending leadership change could undermine the stability of Sino-US relations.

President Jiang Zemin will become increasingly preoccupied in the months ahead with leadership reshuffles to be announced at the 16th Communist Party Congress in 2002 as well as at the following year's session of the legislature, the National People's Congress, at which he will be constitutionally required to step down as president.

In Taiwan in March, President Lee will step down and the island will elect his successor. Cross-strait relations could become particularly volatile during this period, and any tension in that region would inevitably involve America too.

So as the euphoria of the WTO accord fades and the new century begins, the strains are evident between the United States and China. One of the biggest diplomatic challenges both countries will face in the coming decades will be ensuring these strains do not lead to a catastrophic breakdown.

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See also:
01 Jul 98 |  Clinton in China
Special report: Clinton in China
24 Sep 99 |  China 50 years of communism
The People's Republic at 50: Special report

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