BEIJING – There is a reason why China reacted calmly to U.S. President George W. Bush’s pledges to "oppose tyranny" and "spread freedom" around the world.
Beijing is confident that the country is becoming indispensable to the United States, regardless of Bush’s rhetoric in his second inaugural speech which critics have claimed as bordering on hypocrisy.
President Bush’s Jan. 20 second-term inaugural address in which he promised to draw sharp distinctions between nations based on "oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right" generated ripples throughout the world. Foreign governments and commentators expressed alarm at what they saw as the pursuit of a more aggressive foreign policy that could worsen global tensions.
The Chinese government, however, had little official reaction to the speech but the Communist Party’s flagship, the People’s Daily, said Bush’s speech showed that "being morally conceited and militarily aggressive" are hallmarks of U.S. nationalism.
In a commentary published a day after the inauguration, the paper questioned the rationale behind Bush’s quest for world freedom, given the "wartime atmosphere" and "tight security" of his inauguration ceremony.
"No banquet under the sun will last forever," the article said. "After the firework fades away, Washington is under a dark sky," added the daily.
Commentators here, also, scoffed at what they called a gulf between Bush’s lofty rhetoric and the practical demands of thwarting terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Many of them stressed that Bush’s goals are unattainable without help from big countries like China and Russia.
Zhang Yebai, a U.S. expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that "following through on [Bush’s] intentions would be difficult," given the need to act with other nations, especially China, against security threats in North Korea.
"The tone of Bush’s speech may seem high-pitched, but I think the U.S. can hardly afford to act unilaterally on many of Bush’s targets," Zhang said.
"Take North Korea, for instance. There are four other countries, apart from the United States involved in resolving the nuclear proliferation issue on the peninsula and China is chief among them," stressed the academic.
Across the Taiwan Strait, the reaction was of similar skepticism. The Taipei Times said U.S.- Taiwanese relations illustrate how Washington’s self-interest the need to maintain good relations with China stands in the way of Bush’s vision.
The newspaper cited U.S. unease at Taiwan’s plans, as it strives for full independence from China, to rewrite the constitution and hold referendums.
"If it is so important to help oppressed people leave tyranny behind, isn’t it even more important to help free people resist subjection to tyranny," it wrote.
The U.S. sees China as its main long-term rival for global dominance and is worried about possible military conflict over Beijing’s declared desire to reassert control over Taiwan, which the United States has vowed to defend.
Analysts have described U.S.-China relations after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States as the "best in modern history," but many warn that Washington is deeply suspicious of China’s rise on the world stage.
"There has not been a change in U.S. strategic intentions to eliminate what Washington calls their potential competitors," said political observer Sun Jinzhong.
U.S.-China ties got off to a rocky start in the first Bush administration after Washington redefined the bilateral ties as one based on competition rather than on mutual cooperation. Tensions were further heightened after a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea just month after Bush took office in 2001.
China also opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and most Chinese said they were against Bush’s reelection. However, U.S.-China relations have been mostly smooth over the past few years, with China’s economy and trade with Washington booming at the same time.
In the aftermath of his inaugural speech, the Bush administration and members of the Republican Party denied that it signaled a major shift in U.S. policy.
Bush’s father, the former president George Bush, was quoted as saying the inaugural address was meant to clarify existing policies not set a new militaristic course.
White House officials said Bush’s speech would not lead to any quick shift in strategy for dealing with countries such as Russia, Egypt, and Pakistan, regarded as allies in the fight against terrorism whose records on human rights and democracy fall well short of the values embraced in the inaugural address.
Although Bush did not cite any countries by name, his secretary of state-nominee Condoleezza Rice has identified Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Burma, and Belarus as "outposts of tyranny" where the U.S. must help bring freedom.
"This is a clear signal that U.S. would not stop after resolving Iran’s nuclear problem," argued Wang Yiwei, a U.S. expert at Shanghai Fudan University. "The long-term goals of Washington’s foreign policy are to face up to traditional U.S. threats like China and Russia."
Wang says Bush’s blueprint for his second term seems to have substituted the victory in the global war against terrorism as its prerogative with a broader platform of fighting for democracy the world over.
"This is not by accident," Wang argued in the weekly Southern Weekend. "If the war on terror forced Washington to cozy up to China and Russia, then the broader pursuit of democracy gives it room to attack its traditional adversaries."
As an example, Wang cites a recent decision by the Bush administration to impose penalties against some of China’s largest companies for aiding Iran’s efforts to improve its ballistic missiles.
The United States has also threatened to limit the European Union’s access to U.S. military technology should the EU decide to go ahead with its controversial decision to lift its arms embargo against China.
On the latter, however, Beijing seems to be winning the battle. During his January visit to Beijing, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confirmed that the EU is likely to lift the ban on arms sale to China in the next six months. U.S. officials argue that any easing of European arms control exports could influence the outcome of potential military conflicts between China and the U.S. over Taiwan.
The EU’s move to dramatically upgrade relations with Beijing in the face of opposition from the United States and Japan has boosted China’s confidence. Analysts here speculate that during his second term, Bush should pay more attention to France and Germany’s ambition to weaken U.S. hegemony by creating a multipolar world where China would play a major role.
Said Zhang from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: "China, of course, is worried about the unilateral trend of the Bush administration, even more so now that [outgoing Secretary of StateColin] Powell is going while hawks like [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld are staying."
"But we are not alone on this one the European Union countries are worried too," he added.