BEIJING – The 2004 vote for the U.S. president would have gone down in history as one of the most painless polls for China since Washington recognized its communist government in 1979, had it not been for a political gaffe committed by Beijing on the eve of the elections.
Although Beijing tried to distance itself from stinging remarks by the respected former foreign minister Qian Qichen, who hit out at the Bush administration’s "cocksureness and arrogance" in its attempt to "rule the world," the published commentary, nonetheless, exposed certain Chinese leaders’ anxiety over U.S. unilateralism and its future manifestations.
The incident also marred what promised to be a remarkably trouble-free U.S. election for Beijing. For the first time since the 1970s, China was no longer a vote-swinging issue in the U.S. presidential election campaign.
"The anti-China platform hasn’t been vociferous in these U.S. elections," remarked Professor Rick Baum, political scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles..
In previous elections, challengers always assailed the incumbent president as being too "friendly" with Beijing leaders. Accusations against Beijing ranged from condemnation of the country’s human rights record and the subjugation of the Tibetan people to China’s alleged stealing of U.S. jobs.
However, the China threat hardly featured in the salvo of critical appraisals fired at U.S. President George W. Bush by his Democrat challenger John Kerry. And mainland Chinese analysts agreed more than disagreed that whoever won the elections, it would make little difference to U.S.-China relations.
"Unlike previous U.S. elections, this time both [Republican and Democratic] candidates have a clear recognition of China’s rise as a world power and its importance as a strategic ally," said Zhang Guoqing, research fellow with the American Studies Institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"This U.S. acknowledgment of China’s increasing world influence can not be easily undermined by a mere change of the U.S. president," Zhang said in an interview. Xue Yabo, a researcher with the Institute for National Defense under the China Renmin University, went even further to suggest that the "Bush administration’s neoconservatism has contributed to the revival of American policy [that gravitates] toward China."
"There is a tacit political agreement between Beijing and Washington that no other domestic considerations by either side should be allowed to disturb the global effort to combat terrorism," Xue wrote in the Beijing-based Xinjing Bao daily.
"The fight against terrorism is the core of Bush’s neoconservative politics and Washington’s policies toward China in the foreseeable future would be unavoidably constrained by this," he added.
Both U.S. and Chinese observers have praised relations between the two countries in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, as the "best ever" with Beijing aligning itself with Washington in the "global war against terrorism." Also, both sides concentrated on expanding economic and trade ties with one another.
Although China opposed the war in Iraq, the overall climate had continued to be free of visible tensions.
But just as Beijing was becoming comfortable about any outcome of the elections, a press blunder exposed the undercurrent flaws in U.S.-China relations.
On Monday, the state-run English-language China Daily carried a prominent commentary by Qian who happens to be the doyen of Chinese foreign policy. The timing of the article itself was prominent and it marked a sharp departure from Beijing’s past refusal to comment on U.S. presidential elections.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry later said that the article was not "specially commissioned" and its timing was unfortunate. But whatever the circumstances behind its publication, there was little doubt about its unabashedly anti-Bush stance.
The commentary insinuated that Beijing is uneasy about the change of political dynamics in the aftermath of a U.S.-led anti-Iraq campaign. Also, Qian hinted that China was wary of another four years of the Bush administration, in terms of what it could deliver on the international front.
Qian also accused Bush’s government of having "opened a Pandora’s box, intensifying various intermingled conflicts, such as ethnic and religious ones." He criticized the "Bush doctrine" in which the United States created the so-called "axis of evil" and allowed for "preemptive strategies" to rule U.S. politics.
Within China’s diplomatic circles, Qian’s comments have been taken seriously.
Although retired, he is said to exert strong behind-the-scenes influence in China’s foreign policy, and many diplomats believe his comments could reflect the thinking of certain Chinese leaders.
Qian is the most revered senior Chinese diplomat, who is credited with reestablishing China’s international standing in the aftermath of the 1989 bloody crackdown on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square.
In the hours after Bush’s reelection was confirmed, Beijing tried to repair the diplomatic damage done by the former foreign minister’s remarks.
In a congratulatory message sent to the White House, President Hu Jintao lauded the progress in Sino-U.S. relations during Bush’s first term in office.
Hu also said he was looking forward to working with President Bush in promoting "constructive cooperative relations" between the two countries during the U.S. president’s second term.
State-owned newspapers, too, have been laudatory over Bush’s reelection victory in a bid to blow over Qian’s comments.
The Beijing Youth Daily said it had seen a more mature Bush emerge, commenting: "Today’s Bush is no longer the ignorant, arrogant Western cowboy of the past."