Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 12

By John Tkacik

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, held in Shanghai on October 20-21, was a glittering press spectacle with Shanghai’s broad skyline a blazing neon rainbow and twenty Asia-Pacific leaders bedecked in silk brocade tunics. It was sweetness and light for economics and trade, but seen objectively, it capped six weeks of geopolitical disasters for China.

Indeed, in the short span between the September 11 terror attacks on the United States and the conclusion of the APEC summit on October 21, China saw at least six treaty allies join the American war effort without consulting Beijing. It saw Japan in a more active international military role than ever before. Traditional U.S. allies in the region rallied to America’s cause, while Beijing’s peremptory treatment of the Taiwan delegation to APEC stirred Taiwan independence sentiments on the Island just weeks ahead of key elections there. And China’s limp support for U.S. strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaida convinced many in Washington that Beijing is not yet a “partner” in the war, much less a “strategic partner” in Asia.

Perhaps China’s biggest setback has been that two major allies, Pakistan and Russia, jumped to aid the United States without prior consultation with Beijing.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s immediate reaction to the September 11 attacks was to open up his country unconditionally to U.S. military operations against Afghanistan. Of course, Pakistan had no choice. Its Interservice Intelligence directorate (ISI) both funded and supported the Afghan Taliban and their al-Qaida clients, and the full force of American financial, military and geostrategic wrath was poised to lash through Pakistan as it slammed the Taliban. Pakistan was compelled to prove its innocence swiftly and without reservation. Not only did Beijing lose any leverage it had on Islamabad, at the APEC summit President Bush wrung a commitment from Chinese President Jiang Zemin for further “consultations” on Pakistan–doubtless with a keen U.S. eye on Beijing’s continued illegal sales of advanced missile and nuclear technology to Islamabad.

Russia’s incentive was the opposite of Pakistan’s. President Vladimir Putin very ably seized the opportunity to align Russia with the Americans by opening Russian airspace to U.S. aircraft and offering the cooperation of its military forces in war-torn Tajikistan to aid U.S. soldiers setting up bases there. Russia also provided green light to its Central Asian allies to go ahead and provide air corridors and bases to the U.S. military. Putin clearly went ahead without consulting his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin, despite having signed the “Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism.” That treaty was signed last June, supposedly to promote a “rational international political and economic new order” (that is, one without a single hegemonic superpower) and to lock the Central Asian states and Russia into an antiterror alliance with China.

The post-September 11 antiterror war was the first test of Chinese leadership within the treaty’s framework, and China failed. Instead of waiting for Beijing’s signal, the Central Asians–all treaty allies of the Chinese–immediately approached Moscow for permission to offer their territory as bases for the U.S. military–right in China’s back yard. Putin himself (no doubt with moistened finger in the breeze) moved quickly to the American side. Putin chose wisely. At the Shanghai APEC talks, President Bush indicated a new willingness to bargain on the abrogation of the obsolete 1972 ABM Treaty, surely a goodwill gesture for Putin’s cooperation.

China’s only good news in Central Asia is the fact that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorists and their Taliban protectors won’t be arming or training the ethnic-Muslim separatist movement that has plagued China’s Xinjiang region for the past decade. U.S. strikes against Afghanistan will see to that.

Still, that must be little comfort to Beijing as it watches the rest of its carefully crafted “antihegemonist” geopolitical structure crumble–while the main “hegemon” so quickly emerges as the dominant player in Eurasia. For five years China struggled to enlist its Central Asian neighbors in an antiterrorist alliance, only to be left on the margins of the antiterror war at its western frontier.

Another setback for China came as Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offered military support for the mounting American overseas combat campaign. Koizumi is now moving toward a “reinterpretation” of Article Nine of Japan’s pacifist constitution, undoing years of Chinese hectoring of the Japanese on the dangers of remilitarization. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung also swiftly joined ranks “as a close ally of the United States,” and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did the same. Australian Prime Minister John Howard invoked the ANZUS defense treaty–for the first time in history–to offer Australian troops and assistance to the U.S. war effort. Ditto for Thailand and Singapore, and even Taiwan wanted to help. Clearly, America’s traditional allies in East Asia flew immediately to her side as war approached.

Some of China’s setbacks were brought on itself. In one memorable demonstration of autopodiatric target practice during the APEC meetings, China’s foreign minister, sitting as a session chairman, refused to recognize the Taiwan economic minister, telling him it was “unnecessary to waste time” on the subject of Taiwan’s representation. China’s pointedly rude and gratuitous refusal to permit Taiwan’s representative to attend the APEC leaders summit has so alienated Taiwan that support now grows for Taiwan’s pro-independence party in the Island’s December 1 legislative elections.

Finally, China’s unenthusiastic and heavily conditioned support for U.S. action against the Taliban, and its failure to offer substantive assistance to the war on international terror, soured senior U.S. policymakers. The subtext of the Bush-Jiang meetings at APEC were their public remarks which signaled deep splits between Washington and Beijing.

President Bush said he sought an (ahem) “candid and constructive” relationship with China, while President Jiang declined to endorse U.S. military action in Afghanistan and lectured that antiterrorist strikes must have “clearly defined targets,” “hit accurately,” and “avoid innocent casualties.” President Bush, in a pointed reference to Chinese repression in Xinjiang, warned “the war on terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities.” When Jiang raised the Taiwan issue, Bush deigned only to mumble something about “one China” in a pre-departure Washington press conference, but not in his public remarks in China.

And no doubt the Bush administration was not amused by recent reports that that Chinese intelligence purchased dozens of unexploded U.S. Tomahawk missiles from bin Laden after the U.S. attacks in 1999.

Six months ago, China appeared ready to assume leadership of a league of loosely allied Eurasian states from Russia to Burma, from Pakistan into Central Asia. But the war on terrorism has forced the United States back into the middle of the Eurasian matrix, and the Americans look like they’ll be staying for some time. Since China can’t–or won’t–join in the war on terror, it must now content itself with remaining a second-rung power in the region. Surely, this must count as a geopolitical disaster for Beijing.

John Tkacik is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.