Washington Post


Landscape Shift Knocks China Off Balance

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 14, 1999; Page A31

BEIJING—In mid-December, within the garish confines of the Media Hotel in Beijing, scores of Chinese experts and officials involved in relations with the United States gathered to celebrate 20 years of formalized relations between China's Communist government and Washington.

The mood was self-congratulatory, recalled one participant, as the dignitaries toasted themselves on the successful completion of two summits with President Clinton, what many called a new understanding on Taiwan and the sense that U.S.-China ties had entered, as China's officials had been saying, a "new era."

Three months later, souring ties between the world's most populous country and the sole superpower have silenced China's buoyant mood. American accusations that Chinese spies pilfered U.S. nuclear-weapon designs in the late 1980s, a recent 99-0 Senate vote against China's human rights record, talk in Washington about providing Taiwan access to U.S. missile-defense technology and increasingly cozy military ties between the United States and Japan have left Chinese officials saying they were blindsided by a new chill in Beijing's relations with Washington.

"We really didn't expect this was going to happen," said one senior Chinese government adviser who has watched the recent setbacks with alarm. "Many of us don't know what to do."

The sudden decline of U.S.-China relations is not the only unsettling development that has taken China's leadership by surprise. Challenges to some of China's core assumptions about its security have arisen in the past year, involving not only the United States but also North Korea and the newly nuclear-poised nations of India and Pakistan.

Several other elements figure in what Beijing views as a new and confusing international environment:

Continued U.S. economic growth has obliterated a key Chinese assumption that the United States is in decline. This, coupled with China's faltering economy, has challenged a basic Beijing tenet: Ultimately, the Chinese economy will surpass that of the United States, and Beijing will replace Washington as Asia's main power broker. Indeed, the U.S. economy grew 6.1 percent in the last quarter of 1998, arguably faster than China's. U.S. gross domestic product stood at $8.5 trillion in 1998. China's was about $1 trillion.

China signed the 1996 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the assumption that its strategic circumstances would remain relatively stable and improve over time. Nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan last spring, however, ended China's reign as the lone nuclear power in Asia. They also forced strategists in the Chinese army and government to refocus attention on China's southern flank -- an unwelcome diversion from Beijing's main task, which is reuniting with Taiwan.

China also assumed that the deep cuts in the Russian and American nuclear arsenals, as envisioned in the START II strategic arms limitation accord, would reduce its need to build up its nuclear forces. But START's recent collapse "trashed all that," said Bates Gill, a China security expert at the Brookings Institution.

The Aug. 31 firing of a North Korean rocket over Japan galvanized opinion there and in the United States about the necessity of closer military ties -- including development of a regional missile defense system, known as theater missile defense. The three-stage Taepodong rocket also shot down the Chinese assumption that it would not have to choose between helping to bolster North Korea as a friendly buffer state or alienating South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Indeed, China has very hard choices to face in its relations with Pyongyang. The two countries are celebrating 50 years of close ties, and Chinese officials say they expect a senior North Korean official will visit China this year. It would be the first such summit since China established relations with South Korea in 1992. But China will have a hard time improving ties with the isolated Communist regime if it is simultaneously pressuring it to slow development of a long-range rocket threat, Western diplomats said.

This month, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright told her Chinese interlocutors that the best way they could avoid more talk of an anti-missile defense system in the region would be to concentrate on removing the North Korean threat. A senior administration official said that U.S. officials have noticed lately that China appears more cooperative in regard to North Korea. The Chinese, he said, "have stopped saying they have no influence. They're saying they have the same concerns."

It is too early to tell whether these reversals of China's assumptions and its rockier ties with the United States will cause Beijing to adopt a more aggressive stance in Asia. Nonetheless, when China has felt cornered it has rarely played a tentative hand, Western security officials say, and in recent weeks it has been talking and acting tough.

In one instance, China has postponed the first trip ever to Taiwan -- by Wang Daohan, head of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits -- until after May. It has criticized the United States and Japan for considering development of a missile-defense system for both the United States and Asia. It has warned the United States to end its sales of high-tech weaponry, especially missile-defense systems, to Taiwan, saying it would be the "last straw" in U.S.-China relations.

It also has dispatched Chinese army seamen to Mischief Reef, an island in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines, where they have constructed what some call a military installation.

China has also responded by seeking support from the Russian government, which shares China's concerns about both theater missile defense and military ties between Washington and Tokyo. On Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced it had consulted with Russia about proposals in the United States to incorporate parts of Asia under a U.S.-controlled anti-missile umbrella.

Some Western officials have predicted that if China continues to feel threatened, it will move further toward Moscow. Russia is already China's biggest supplier of weapons, including fighter planes, destroyers and anti-ship missiles, selling Beijing an estimated $1 billion worth of arms a year.

At root, the clash between Washington's and Beijing's viewpoints is a traditional one -- between an entrenched power, the United States, and a resurgent one, China.

"The fundamental issue is whether the United States is willing to accept a China that is getting stronger, both militarily and economically," said Chu Shulong, a senior research fellow at the influential China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. "On the other side is how China will accept a United States that has troops and enduring interests in Asia."

The key ingredient in this clash is Taiwan, an island of 21 million inhabitants with a per capita gross domestic product of $13,233 -- nearly 20 times that of the communist mainland. China has viewed Taiwan as a renegade province since Nationalist Chinese troops fled there after the Communist victory in 1949.

China's insistence that the United States end military sales to Taiwan is rooted in China's view that Taiwan belongs to Beijing. It is a deeply emotive historical issue. But it also has a hugely important and often neglected strategic dimension.

The 13,885-square-mile island, slightly bigger than Maryland, sits like a roadblock on China's path to the Pacific.

The United States has defense relationships with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan -- stretching in an arc around China. Taiwan is situated smack in the middle. And U.S. law mandates that Washington equip Taiwan's military forces so they can defend themselves.

So, China views U.S. ties with Taiwan not simply as a violation of its sovereignty but as a key link in the arc of containment, Western analysts said.

"On all levels, Taiwan is the central issue in our relations with the United States," said Chu. "Over time other issues can come and go, but Taiwan is becoming more and more central every day."

Chinese and Western analysts say that the beginning of each year is always tough on U.S.-China relations because of the issues that arise then. There's the Geneva meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, where China perennially risks facing a censure motion (over the years none has passed). There also is the annual U.S. debate on granting China most-favored nation trading status; it has never been rejected.

This year, however, things are tougher. A congressional report, due to be released soon, will allege a pattern of Chinese espionage that resulted in China's learning how to miniaturize its nuclear warheads -- a major step forward in its weapons modernization program.

"In the past, we always knew the first half of the year would be rocky," said the Chinese government adviser. "But we had things to say about these issues. We could argue the trade questions, saying trade with China is good for the United States; we could argue the human rights issues, saying our values are different. And we could make some headway. But this time the question is really one of national security. That's very difficult to get at. . . . We don't have anything to say about American security."

U.S. Defense Links in Asia Beijing is concerned about U.S. defense relationships in Asia that stretch in an arc around China -- with Taiwan smack in the middle. (This graphic was not available)