US hawks unhappy at improving Beijing ties
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Despite US President George W Bush's efforts to embrace Taiwan ever tighter, Vice President Dick Cheney and influential right-wingers close to key policy makers at the Pentagon complain that the administration has become too complacent about what they call a growing threat from China.

Citing what they say is a major military buildup by Beijing, they want the administration to provide more sophisticated weapons to Taiwan, bolster the US military presence in East Asia and follow through on proposals to create a new security framework that could act as a prototype alliance among what they deem the region's democratic states.

The latest proposals have been voiced in this week's Weekly Standard magazine, an influential right-wing publication, by Gary Schmitt, the executive director for the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), an organization whose founding members included both Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and whose recent calls for dramatic shifts in Middle East policy and regime change in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority (PA) the administration has largely followed.

"The truth is that the United States can put off competition with China [for] only so long," said Schmitt, a former Republican congressional staff member. "At the end of the day, China's ambitions make a contest inevitable. For that reason, the United States should be taking advantage of China's current preoccupation with its internal affairs to strengthen our hand in the region."

Schmitt's article comes amid modest signs of improvement in Sino-US ties since one year ago, when Schmitt's colleagues at PNAC and the Weekly Standard were still fuming over Secretary of State Colin Powell's deft diplomatic footwork in defusing the crisis over the forced landing and subsequent detention of a US reconnaissance plane and its crew.

At Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's insistence, however, Washington suspended military-to-military ties with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) that have still not been entirely restored despite the visit late last month of a senior Pentagon official, Peter Rodman, to Beijing, where he met Defense Minister General Chi Haotian.

The most important boost in ties came after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Beijing pledged to provide intelligence on al-Qaeda and muted its own grave misgivings about Washington's aggressive and successful pursuit of military-basing agreements with China's Central Asian neighbors.

"The Chinese have been trying to lie low," said John Gershman, a China watcher at Princeton University. Beijing, he said, has especially avoided strong denunciations of growing US military and political ties with Taiwan, which Chinese leaders consider a renegade province of the mainland, "because they know that that is the issue that could throw a spanner into [their own political] succession", which is to be sealed at the forthcoming Communist Party Congress this summer.

China's silence, however, should not be understood in any way as support for or even acquiescence in Washington's recent moves, says Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Particularly alarming to Beijing have been Washington's withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty; its beginning construction on a national missile defense (NMD) system; its growing military ties with India; and Bush's own promise to help Taiwan defend itself, including by selling it top-of-the-line weapons and surveillance systems and increasing military exchanges symbolized by an unprecedented meeting this spring between Taiwan's defense minister and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Long ambivalent about Washington's post-Cold War role as the global hegemon, Chinese attitudes began turning more fearful already in 1999 as a result of the Bill Clinton administration's air campaign in Kosovo, according to Pei.

"The degree of fearfulness has intensified enormously since the arrival [in power] of the new conservatives," he said. "Their world view makes it very difficult to maintain its previous views of US hegemony as harmless or benign."

After September 11, said Pei, Beijing had hoped that the administration would make a major reassessment of its relationship with China, only to be disappointed by subsequent events. "China feels desperately that the hegemon's hands need to be tied, but no [other power] is willing to [work with China] to do so."

Beijing's fears are focused in particular on the political appointees in the Pentagon, including Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. The Pentagon, for example, reportedly refused to deal directly with the PLA in exchanging intelligence during the anti-terrorism war, leaving that job to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) instead.

Rumsfeld also reportedly barred the interpreter provided by the State Department from attending the meeting he held with visiting Chinese Vice President (and heir apparent) Hu Jintao in May at the Pentagon in what was widely seen as both a rebuke to Powell's far more conciliatory approach toward Beijing and an intent to keep what in diplomatese is called a "frank exchange of views" as closed as possible.

"There is very little doubt these people view China through a very dark lens," said Pei, speaking of the Pentagon's civilian leadership.

In many ways, Schmitt speaks for them, and his article can be seen as the opening salvo in a series of new blasts against any further warming of Sino-US ties, says Gershman.

"After a nine-month or so grace period after September 11, and especially after Democrats have begun to raise questions about Bush's foreign policy, the hawks feel they can begin to criticize the administration, too," Gershman said.

What is ironic is that the Pentagon, backed by Cheney, has been able to proceed relatively unconstrained in its anti-Beijing moves anyway, despite the superficial and largely rhetorical improvement in bilateral ties. But all of those moves have been framed within the context of the war on terrorism, rather than anything related to China.

"They've won the battle on closer military ties with Taiwan; they're pursuing new forward deployments of men and supplies in East Asia, especially in the Philippines; they're rapidly upgrading military ties with India - all of which have little or nothing to do with fighting al-Qaeda and everything to do with China," said Gershman.

"But, to them, the politics of symbolism is very important, and they want to hear Bush say China is a competitor, as he did during the presidential campaign," he added. "There are still some in the administration who wish China had been named part of the 'axis of evil'."

Indeed Schmitt, in his article, could not point to a single concrete move taken by the administration that suggests Powell's more conciliatory approach may be winning the day. His only examples were the administration's failure to release a Pentagon report (reportedly criticized by the military) on the threat to regional security posed by the PLA and a recent public statement by Wolfowitz playing down US eagerness to create new security arrangements with friendly allies.

(Inter Press Service)

Jul 13, 2002


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