Int'l Herald Tribune

The Chinese game plan behind Jiang's sweet talk on Bush

Saturday, August 11, 2001

Thomas L. Friedman-- The New York Times

Beidaihe, China -- When you ask China's president, Jiang Zemin, whether he is worried about relations with President George W. Bush, in light of their rocky start and the Bush team's push for missile defense, Mr. Jiang gives a charmingly Chinese answer: I'm not worried at all - I know the young man's parents.

"Although I have not met personally President George W. Bush I have met many times with his parents, George Bush and his wife," said President Jiang, in an interview with The New York Times at the Chinese leadership's coastal summer retreat in Beidaihe. "On the fifth of July President Bush called me. Although it was not a video phone where I could see his facial expression, from his voice I could feel that he was a president we can do business with. Most of the conversation was conducted with interpreters, but at the end, although I do not speak good English, I tried to say directly in English, 'Please send my best regards to your parents.'"

All I could think of as I listened to Mr. Jiang was: What's going on here? First President Bush looks into the Russian president's eyes and says he saw a good soul, and now China's president says he's heard Mr. Bush's voice and he sounds like a guy he can work with. What happened to the good old days when Great Powers threatened each other with annihilation to get their way or pounded tables with a shoe?

What's going on here, I think, is this: The Chinese, like their Russian counterparts, understand two things. One is that they are relatively weak vis-à-vis the United States right now and therefore must be a lot smarter in how they manage American power. And two, they are obsessed with internal issues, ranging from a planned change in leadership over the next two years to a wrenching transformation of the Chinese economy now that it is joining the World Trade Organization, and they just don't want trouble now with America or the world.

Chinese officials will tell you privately, and urgently, that U.S. plans for a missile shield pose a huge strategic problem for Beijing. While all the focus has been on Russia, the fact is that the Russians can easily overwhelm any U.S. missile shield with their 7,000 long-range nukes.

That's why in some ways missile defense is a bonanza for Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. He's going to get the United States to pay him to scrap the ABM Treaty so that America can build a system that Mr. Putin knows can't threaten Russia soon and may never work.

China, by contrast, has only 18 to 24 nuclear missiles that could hit the United States. And although China is upgrading that force, the fact is that even a small U.S. missile shield could conceivably blunt every Chinese long-range nuke and therefore eliminate China's deterrent threat.

Add to that the possibility that Taiwan might be integrated into a U.S. missile shield, making it less vulnerable to Chinese attack as well, and you see why U.S. missile defense for China is not a bonanza but a potentially huge bill.

The Chinese understand that there is going to be a struggle in the Bush team over how big a missile shield to deploy and whether to treat China as a potential partner, as Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested, or as America's next great enemy, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seems to believe. By sending the most soothing signals, and praising the pro-China policies of the elder President Bush, the Chinese are trying to influence that internal debate.

This Chinese approach - call it strategic warmth - has enormous support throughout Asia, and it will be interesting now to watch how it impacts the deliberations of the Bush team on missile defense and on China.

As we got up to leave at the end of the interview in Mr. Jiang's summer palace, where foreigners are rarely invited, the Chinese leader had just one last thing to say: "Let me quote another Chinese proverb: 'It takes two hands to clap.'"