Asia Times: Chinese strategic miscalculation?
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  December 5, 2001  

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Chinese strategic miscalculation?

By Marc Erikson

Chinese authorities quickly cracked down on celebrations and rejoicing among some of their citizens and in Internet chat rooms after the news of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US hit. But official Chinese support for the US-led war on terror was slow in coming. Beijing stressed the UN - ie do nothing - role in fighting terrorism, and generally it has remained muted. Few, if any, concrete steps or actions have been taken to assist the US campaign.

By stark contrast, although it has not sent combat troops to Afghanistan, Russia has been a staunch and crucial US ally from the get-go. It exercised its influence in former Central Asian Soviet republics to help secure staging areas for US and allied troops, has provided arms and ammunition to anti-Taliban forces, and has been unambiguous in saying that the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda must be won, and decisively so, lest terrorists conclude that victory will ultimately always be theirs.

During his recent Washington/Texas summit with US President George W Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin began to reap the fruits of his strong commitment to the US position. Even the only months ago unthinkable, that Russia might in the not-so-distant future join NATO, is unthinkable no more. Substantial US economic assistance to Russia has been pledged. Continuing disagreements over US ballistic missile defense plans cast barely a shadow over the Bush-Putin meetings.

Putin has shrewdly seized the opportunity for forging a US-Russian strategic alliance and for extracting his country from the near basket-case status of the 1990s.

Where has China been, what has the Beijing leadership been thinking as these developments unfolded? "Nowhere" and "nothing" would appear to be the answers. Its cautious verbal support for the anti-terror campaign bought China US acquiescence when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian was not invited to the Shanghai APEC summit. It also allowed Beijing to cast its campaign against rebellious Uighurs in Xinjiang in the light of a fight against terrorist separatists, and the US is not likely to raise human rights concerns under present circumstances. But those are minor benefits. Against it stands very substantial loss of strategic clout in South and Central Asia where Russia is reasserting itself and the US has become a major player, a position it will not likely relinquish again any time soon. Perennial Chinese fears of strategic encirclement have come near realization.

How could Chinese leaders permit this to happen? The answer is as straightforward as it is prosaic: The present leadership - though generally competent in economic affairs - sorely lacks strategic vision and policy-making flexibility. It is utterly incapable of making and implementing the radical, far-reaching and fast decisions that characterized Deng Xiaoping's reign.

Like hide-bound bureaucrats (which many of them are), the decision-makers in Jiang Zemin's politburo and the foreign ministry went by the book after September 11, stuck to "principles" whose relevance had just been seriously challenged and listened to "friends" whose knowledge and credibility had just been found most wanting. Invasive interference in other nations' affairs must not be tolerated, said one principle. Hence only the most lukewarm of support for US action in Afghanistan was forthcoming, with the added caution that foreign troop deployments must be limited in both numbers and time. Political solutions must be home-made and balanced, said another guideline, ie, no-one should put pressure on the Afghans on how to sort out their affairs and the plurality Pashtun friends of friend Pakistan should rule.

But most debilitating proved the notion that Pakistan and its intelligence services knew better than anyone else of what was going on in Afghanistan. Thus Beijing fell into the trap of believing Inter-Services INtelligence assessments from Pakistan that the anti-Taliban campaign would be protracted, that the US would get stuck with an unending quagmire and get seriously bloodied as the Soviets had experienced in the 1980s. Hands off then, Beijing counselled itself on Pakistani advice.

All these policy tacks have yielded not only nothing, but led to a serious deterioration of China's strategic position and regional influence. Pakistan is a strategic loser. Its position vis-a-vis India, now a de facto US ally, is weakened. When once India felt (and was) boxed in by Pakistan and China, it's now China that has been shut out from South Asia and cut off from Central Asia. A leader of Deng's qualities of insight and foresight would not have permitted such a turn of events, would have realized that the world changed dramatically on September 11, and realized, in particular, that abstention in the war on terror and hidden expectations that disaster might befall the US in Afghanistan were strategic miscalculations.

But it's too late for that now, even if belatedly China is now attempting to reassert its influence in the post-Taliban political process. [See China breaks it silence, Nov 28] Key historical turning points must be identified and understood for what they are and acted on while there is leverage to do so. Such leverage China has now lost and Washington strategic analysts are keenly aware of it. They won't publicly say so, of course. There's no point in gloating. But they watched as China hedged its bets and are not exactly distressed that the hedge proved costly.

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