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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 19, 2001

Island Voices
In terrorism crisis, a rare opportunity

 •  Editorial: Bush faces delicate task in China gathering

By Lloyd R. "Joe" Vasey

When President Bush meets with Chinese President Jiang Zemin at the economic summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Shanghai this weekend, he can make real progress in Sino-U.S. relations, one of the most critical challenges he faces.

This is best illustrated by a disturbing trend in the Western media — the steady stream of books, articles and editorials depicting China as the primary threat to peace in Asia — with the clear implication that the United States faces a strategic adversary similar to the former Soviet Union. Even more disturbing are articles in the Chinese media depicting the United States as an arch-enemy bent on preventing China from rising to major-power status.

Official government statements and speeches by senior military commanders make no bones about portraying U.S. alliance strategy in the western Pacific as designed to "encircle China" and neuter its growing military power. The U.S. plan to build missile defense shields is viewed as a major effort to weaken China strategically.

Such perceptions are not surprising.

When President Clinton took office after the bloody Tiananmen massacre, he referred to the leaders of China as "the butchers of Beijing," which not only infuriated them but set a generally negative tone for America's China policy for the next few years. U.S. policy was driven almost entirely by a human-rights agenda.

Subsequently, Clinton administration policies zig-zagged and at one point even reversed course and embraced China as a "strategic partner." A presidential speech in Shanghai essentially endorsed People's Republic of China claims of sovereignty over Taiwan where a bona fide democracy prevails.

The administration's eagerness for commerce with China had already supplanted human rights in setting the tone of U.S. policy. According to the Cox Report, the administration then, in the name of "engagement," had thrown all caution to the wind in encouraging the transfer of military and space technology in business deals, while indirect political contributions from Beijing were corrupting American politics.

The accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by American warplanes in 1999, and the unconvincing explanations by our government, brought to a climax and reinforced the prevailing view in Beijing of a hostile U.S.

Yet, the Chinese government made a concerted effort after Tiananmen to change its deplorable human-rights policies and has encouraged experiments in grass-roots democracy across the country. But a stark reminder of China's dark side is the regime's campaign to eliminate the Falun Gong spiritual movement — so far more than 250 believers reportedly have died of beatings or torture while in custody.

Rapid economic and social change is causing a transformation of Chinese politics, something that is anathema to leaders who are already paranoid over increasing social unrest throughout the country. In June, a startlingly frank news report from the communist party warned that relations between party officials and the masses are "tense, with conflicts on the rise," with a spreading pattern of "collective protests and group incidents." China is also concerned with Islamic extremism emerging in and near its western regions.

The focus of Beijing's unease with the Washington continues to be Taiwan. The PRC considers the island a renegade province and threatens to conquer it by force if Taiwan indefinitely delays negotiations on reunification. To underscore this point, hundreds of ballistic missiles have been deployed to coastal areas ready to bombard Taiwan, and presumably as a potential threat to U.S. bases in Japan and Korea.

Intimidation and coercive diplomacy are most likely to be the primary purpose of these deployments.

The modernization of China's military forces has accelerated in recent years with the acquisition of weaponry from Russia — warships, submarines, fighter-bomber aircraft and military technology. As some of the world's most advanced dual-use technology flows into China commercially, a new emphasis is on information warfare capabilities (i.e., sophisticated viruses) against communications and command networks of adversaries. Still, there is little chance of a conflict in the near future.

Since the return of the U.S. reconnaissance plane and its crew that was held hostage in Hainan this spring, U.S.-China relations have been on the upswing. Washington supported Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games and China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Secretary of State Colin Powell was received cordially during his official visit to Beijing, and remarked that he had moved the ball forward a bit in the relationship. Beijing has agreed to cooperate in the campaign against global terrorism, but with reservations.

In Shanghai, President Bush should discuss with China's leaders the pros and cons of various strategies for defanging terrorist networks. China has a huge stake in the success of this project and has long been concerned that Islamic extremism emerging from Afghanistan and Central Asia will likely trigger unrest and terrorism at home, most immediately in its western region.

Bush's greatest achievement would be China's unconditional commitment to the goal of uprooting global terrorism networks, with immediate priority to the al-Qaida network allied with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

China's meaningful cooperation in this campaign can help build mutual trust and set a more positive direction for U.S.-China relations. Then the two nations will be better positioned to achieve greater mutual understanding and cooperation in addressing divisive issues such as Taiwan security, U.S. plans to build a missile defense system, and the transfer of missile technology to rogue regimes.

This may prove to be the greatest legacy of the Bush presidency.

Lloyd R. "Joe" Vasey, a retired Navy rear admiral, is the founder of and a senior strategist at Pacific Forum, a Hawaii-based nonprofit policy research institute.