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Paper 532                                                       09.10.2002

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

General Background: President Jiang Zemin of China (PRC) is scheduled to meet President Bush of USA in the third week of October 2002.  It will be the third Summit meeting between the two heads of state.  Earlier President Bush had two Summit meetings with the Chinese President in the preceding twelve months.  Chinese officials are fond of quoting this to indicate the importance the United States attaches to its relations with China. 

United States relations with China have had more of a roller coaster effect induced by China’s propensity to follow a ‘ swing strategy ‘ in its relations between the United States and Russia. 

Nothing substantial emerged in the earlier two Summit meetings between President Bush and President Jiang .  It is therefore debatable whether any significant outcome can be expected from this third Summit.  The international security situation has further re-inforced United States unipolar dominance globally.  This is much to the dislike of China, which in the last decade has attempted to forge multi-polar groupings as a counter weight to United States global dominance from the strategic to the economic. 

Perspectives on the forth coming October 2002 Summit can best be obtained by analyzing some major issues which affect United states –China relation.  These are outlined below. 

The China Card Relevance:  The ‘China Card’ was very much played by China in the last two decades of the 20th century.  In fact, China overplayed it.  In the post-cold War era, China attempted to play it in the form of its enhanced strategic cooperation and military exchanges with a strategically weakened Russia.

The picture today is that Russia on most global issues is closer to the United States than China.  Comparatively, Russia is more inclined to forge more meaningful ties with European Union than China. 

It would therefore be sufficient to say that the ‘China Card’ is no longer operative and President Jiang goes to this third Summit meeting with President Bush with no significant leverage or bargaining chips. 

Pentagon’s Re-assessment of the China Threat: In a surprising move, the United States in a Pentagon report,  aired publicly in July 2002 , its revised threat assessment of the military threat that China posed.  Its main ingredients were:

      * China is on a collision course with Taiwan.

* China has built its military strength credible enough for invasion of Taiwan.

* China’s upgraded military capabilities pose a threat not only the Taiwan but also to Japan and the Phillipines.

* China has upgraded its missile arsenal, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

* China’s missile targeting coverage of the United States earlier capable of hitting West Coast cities only, now extends to the American East Coast cities also. 

Such a Pentagon report released publicly just three months prior to a US-China Summit meeting raises questions both externally and domestically.  Externally, it amounts to putting Asia Pacific on notice that the upgraded Chinese military threat would now have to be reckoned with by the United States and its allies.  It would also reinforce United States plans for creation of NMD and TMD with Japan.  Domestically it would reinforce the anti-China conservative hawks advocating a strong line against China.

It could therefore be analysed that the public airing of a revised threat assessment of China may be a multi-pronged  American strategy  to :(1) Limit Chinese negotiation space  at the Summit . (2) Build up US domestic support for NMD and TMD and (3) Put US allies in the Asia Pacific can  on notice that the  ambivalence about the Chinese threat must end. 

Taiwan Will be Core Issue of Discussions: Needless to say that the Taiwan issue will predominate at the October Summit.  Here the respective stands are so diametrically inclined that it seems that it would end up as a “dialogue of the deaf”. 

China through Embassy press briefings in Washington in July 2002 and in the meeting between the Chinese foreign Minister and US secretary of State, Collin Powell at the recent ASEAN meeting has made it clear that:

* China will not stand for independence of Taiwan

* China will not allow foreign interference in Taiwan, as it pertains to China’s domestic politics

* Those who seek Taiwan’s independence are China’s enemies and it could hurt US interest too.

* China urges USA to cut of all official and military ties with  Taiwan.

* China expects USA to live upto its commitments by not sending wrong signals to China. 

China’s intransigence over Taiwan or any military misadventures of forcible military occupation of Taiwan would not see USA stand-by passively.  Taiwan’s strategic significance is critical not only to the United States but also to Japan, Korea and the Philippines. 

The United States is likely to make clear at this Summit, the ‘red-lines’ that China must not cross over Taiwan.  President Bush as a Republican pro-active conservative can be expected to toe a much harder line than President Clinton on the Taiwan issue.

China-USA Military to Military Relations 

In the absence of any substantial  progress on the Taiwan issue, the United States is likely to offer a sop to the Chinese President in the form of increased military-to-military exchanges between the two countries. 

The Chinese attach great significance to this for public relations image point of view. It helps them to portray the closeness of China’s relations with the United States.  For USA the advantage is more strategic. It knows that the real power in China is in the hands of  the PLA and military-to-military contacts enable setting up personal contacts and relationship in the PLA hierarchy. 

Co-operation on Terrorism: At the October Summit a lot of resonance can be expected on the USA- China cooperation on tackling terrorism. Chinese maintain that it has enhanced Sino- US cooperation but they also have made it clear that China hopes that USA will not adopt double standards on terrorism and that USA will support China’s anti-terrorism campaign in Xinjiang. 

United States War Against Iraq: This is the only issue on which the United States would seek China’s understanding and support. China would be expected to be more forthcoming in supporting US stand on Iraq.  More so, when China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. 

China with its close links to Islamic countries and its record of nuclear and missile proliferation in the Islamic region can ill afford to support US War on Iraq, directly.

Nor does China have the political will to use its veto on this issue against the United States in the UN. 

Conclusion: The October Summit meeting in USA between the Presidents of USA and China can be expected to be a routine diplomatic affair. Tons of rhetoric and cliches will flow on the significance and the necessity of building strong and friendly relations between the United States and China. 

Beneath this veneer, however, the strategic concerns about each other will continue to prevail.  The timing of the Pentagon document on the re-assessment  of the China threat is a strong indicator. 

Both United States and China have to face basic strategic realities, namely: 

* China and USA are competing nations. They can never be strategic partners; they are destined to be strategic rivals.

* China has to painfully realize that there are limits to its power, strategically and militarily against the United States.

* United States has to make strategic choices in the region between China and Japan. It cannot have the best of both. 

The October Summit can hardly be expected to contribute in this direction. President Jiang is due to vacate the Presidency and the United States soon after enters the run-up phases to the 2004 Presidential elections.