Muddling Through

As U.S. President George W. Bush concludes his visit to China, it’s important to restate the obvious: Washington, under the Bush administration, doesn’t have a “China Policy.”

Instead, when it comes to dealing with the emerging East Asian giant, the White House has adopted a policy of “muddling through,” by responding to conflicting pressures at home – from economic nationalists and protectionists, neoconservative ideologues and Christian Right activists who demand a tough stand against Beijing, and from free-traders and corporate America, who want to engage China. On top of that, there are the unexpected crises like the collision between a U.S. spy plane gathering intelligence off the Chinese mainland and a Chinese fighter on April 1, 2001.

While Mr. Bush and his aides have attempted to contrast their more “competitive” policy toward China with the “cooperative” approach advanced by ex-president Bill Clinton, neither Mr. Bush nor his top officials have presented a coherent perspective of how the U.S. should deal with Beijing.

In a major speech to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in September, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick did try to discuss some of the principles guiding U.S. policy, but ended up with what amounted to a call to avoid confrontation with the Chinese. Instead of explaining what the U.S. should do, Mr. Zoellick mostly lectured China on how to “to become a responsible stakeholder in the international system” and the need to refrain from antagonizing the Americans.

By failing to come up with a clear articulation of U.S. policy toward China and to forge a constructive Sino-American partnership like the one that began to take shape under the Clinton presidency, President Bush seems to have given a green light to bureaucratic agencies, interest groups, and Congress to steer the direction of the relationship with Beijing. The protectionist forces in Congress have helped drive the anti-Chinese momentum in Washington by blaming Beijing and its trade and currency exchange policy for the erosion in the U.S.’ industrial edge.

Moreover, the administration has allowed the China-bashers on Capitol Hill to derail the proposed deal between Unocal Corporation and Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), creating the impression that the Chinese are engaged in a massive undertaking to take control of the world’s energy resources and deprive America of access to them.

Is it surprising, therefore, that many Americans have concluded that China is trying to “steal” American jobs and “dominate” the global oil markets? Even more disturbing is the way the neoconservative strategists in the Pentagon have been able to take the lead in drawing the outlines of what, for all practical purposes, is a policy of “containing” China.

Reflecting this neocon view of China is author Robert Kaplan in an article titled "How We Would Fight China" [.pdf] in Atlantic magazine’s June issue. He suggested that “the American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the 21st century,” and that “China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.”

Peer Competitor

Indeed, several policies advanced by the Pentagon and statements made by its officials indicate a commitment to the view that Beijing has emerged as Washington’s post-Cold War peer competitor.

Hence, early in the year, the Bush administration adopted an official declaration calling for enhanced security ties between the U.S. and Japan, AKA the “Joint Statement of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee,” which was perceived in Beijing and the rest of East Asia as part of a strategy to construct an anti-Chinese alliance in the region – especially since, for the first time, it stated the need for policy coordination between Washington and Tokyo with regard to Taiwan.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s speech in Singapore in June added to the growing sense that the Pentagon regards China as a threat, especially since it even questioned China’s need to build up its military, by suggesting that “no nation threatens China.”

Similarly, the Pentagon’s recent report on Chinese combat capabilities, titled The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China [.pdf], seemed to raise more alarms about China’s intentions, arguing that “the pace and scope of China’s military buildup are, already, such as to put regional military balances at risk” and that current trends in China’s military modernization potentially pose “a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region.”

Chinese officials and analysts monitoring these and other American policy statements and steps, including the U.S. military presence in the region and the selling of U.S. weapons to Taiwan, are bound to conclude that Washington is intent on challenging China’s rise as an economic and military power and on widening American power at the expense of China’s development, further increasing anti-American sentiment in Beijing.

After all, there was no reason for anyone in Washington to conclude that China’s effort to gain access to oil and natural gas was a threat to U.S. “economic security.” The interference by Congress with what is basically a market process, by preventing the planned purchase of UNOCAL by CNOOC, was more than just an attempt at advancing a costly mercantilist strategy.

It was a sign that Congress and the Pentagon could adopt policies aimed at harming what Chinese President Hu Jintao has termed his country’s “peaceful development,” as a way to describe China’s rise and as a strategy for dealing with the U.S. and other nations.

In a way, by taking steps to derail the Unocal-CNOOC deal, Washington is helping set in motion what could be only described as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since China’s energy needs will only grow, it would have no choice in light of the U.S. policies but to form special economic or foreign policy relationships in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, including with so-called “rogue nations” like Iran, Sudan, and Venezuela.

Challenging the U.S. Position

The Pentagon would then accuse the Chinese of attempting to prop up anti-American regimes around the world and trying to challenge U.S. positions in the Middle East and Central America. A U.S. strategy to “contain” China would then be spun by the neoconservative ideologues as a “defensive” policy targeting an “aggressive” China.

Why are the Chinese strengthening their ties with anti-U.S. populist Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or with the mullahs in Tehran? Well, because the Chinese are intent on harming U.S. interests worldwide, the neocons would respond. The result of these conflicting American and Chinese perceptions (or misperceptions) could be the kind of vicious circle that in the past created the conditions for conflicts between great nations.

President Bush has an opportunity to set the stage for a Sino-U.S. dialogue in which both sides should discover that their core national economic and security interests are really not at odds, and that, if anything, China’s “peaceful development” is compatible with long-term U.S. goals.

But before that dialogue takes place, Mr. Bush needs to take control of Washington’s China policy and steer it in the right direction.

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.