Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 8

One of Beijing’s worst nightmares seems to be coming true. Having apparently steadied the course in the Middle East, the Bush administration is turning to Asia to tame its long-standing “strategic competitor.” While this particular term has been shelved since 9/11 – and Sino-U.S. relations have improved thanks to China’s cooperation with Washington’s global anti-terrorist campaign – there are signs at least from Beijing’s perspective that Washington is spearheading multi-pronged tactics to contain the fast-rising Asian giant.

In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, the new doctrine of encirclement and containment was spelled out during a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Tokyo, part of a recent tour through Asia. Echoing President Bush’s State of the Union address, which pushed a foreign policy predicated upon “spreading democracy,” Rice noted in a speech at Sophia University that “even China must eventually embrace some form of open, genuinely representative government.” And she dropped hints that the U.S. would somehow bring about a democratic China through joint actions with its Asian allies. “I really do believe the U.S.-Japan relationship, the U.S.-South Korea relationship, the U.S.-India relationship – all are important in creating an environment where China is more likely to play a positive role than a negative role,” she added.

It didn’t help that Rice saluted in her Sophia speech the father of the anti-Soviet containment policy George Kennan – who had just passed away – as one of the “great architects of American foreign policy.” Kennan had written in a celebrated 1947 Foreign Affairs piece that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” The Chinese must be very nervous about the possibility that Rice – and Bush – will simply substitute PRC for USSR. After all, it was Rice who coined the phrase “strategic competitor” in a 2000 Foreign Affairs article about the need to adequately take on a fast-emerging China. “It is important to promote China’s internal transition through economic interaction while containing Chinese power and security ambitions,” she wrote.

A Beijing source close to the Chinese foreign-policy establishment said the leadership under President Hu Jintao was not surprised by Rice’s less-than-subtle remarks about revving up the anti-PRC containment juggernaut. This was despite the fact that in an apparent goodwill gesture, the State Department had announced shortly before her arrival in Beijing that Washington would this year not sponsor a motion condemning China at the UN Subcommittee on Human Rights in Geneva. The source said the CCP leadership saw the joint U.S.-Japan defense statement in February as a turning point in China-U.S. relations.

The U.S.-Japan statement referred to the looming threat of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and, most irksome for Beijing, it cited for the first time the maintenance of peace in the Taiwan Strait as a “common strategic objective” of the allies. “[The] meeting may mark the end of the extended Beijing-Washington honeymoon which came about because of 9/11,” the source said. “Even now, of course, Washington requires Chinese help or acquiescence in its dealings with countries including Iran and North Korea. But Bush seems to have picked up his pre-9/11 agenda of containing China, or at least slowing down its progress toward quasi-superpower status.” And the Chinese are well aware that Rice, who had advised President George H.W. Bush on ways to sink the Soviet Empire, was instrumental in shaping then-presidential candidate Bush’s relatively hostile posture toward China.

Moreover, the explosive events in Kyrgyzstan last month have been interpreted by a number of advisers to President Hu as yet another manifestation of Bush’s aggravated policy of “spreading democracy.” This is despite the fact that in official press briefings, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespeople merely expressed the wish that stability be restored to the former Soviet state as soon as possible – and that the work of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which both China and Kyrgyzstan are members, will not be affected.

More sophisticated observers such as National Defense University academic Jin Yinan has drawn the difference between the “Tulips revolution” in Kyrgyzstan on the one hand, and the Rose and Orange insurrections in Georgia and Ukraine. Jin told the Chinese media that should Bishkek fall under the influence of Muslim fundamentalists, “it’s the Americans who would be hurt most.” At the same time, the strategy professor pointed out that Washington’s tendency to target pariah and dictatorship states had “departed from the [principle of] global democracy and engendered ill will in other [countries].”

Other commentators have noted how Washington could kill several birds with one stone should it manage to control the new Kyrgyz government. Given the 1,100-kilometer border between Kyrgyzstan and China – and Washington’s already considerable foothold in nearby Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – the fall of the China-friendly government of disgraced president Askar Akayev would be no small victory for the “containment policy.” A pro-U.S. Bishkek may be much less zealous in cooperating with the Chinese in rooting out Kyrgyz Muslim organizations that are reportedly funneling weapons and material to anti-Beijing, pro-independence elements in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR). Moreover, U.S. preponderance in central Asia could pose a threat to the giant oil pipeline that is being built between Kazakhstan and the XAR. And last but not least, the viability of the SCO, which set up an anti-terrorism center in Bishkek not long ago, is now in doubt.

In a discussion of whether the three allies cited by Rice – Japan, South Korea and India – would play an effective role in the Washington-led anti-China game plan, a panel of People’s Daily experts and journalists expressed optimism that “the U.S. plot to encircle China will come to no avail.” The specialists reckoned that only Japan would faithfully do Washington’s bidding. Korean expert Shen Lin noted that Seoul “will not damage its ties with China because of the U.S.” Shen added that South Korean politicians and opinion leaders had expressed reservations about Washington’s plans to use Korean-based U.S. military facilities to promote American interests in northeast Asia.

New Delhi-based People’s Daily journalist Ren Yan indicated that “India will not blindly follow the lead of the U.S.” because the strategic partnership that Washington wanted to forge with the South Asian country was “centered on American interests.” One purpose of Premier Wen Jiabao’s trip to India this month is to consolidate China-Indian cooperation through means including resolving the decades-old border dispute between the two countries. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Beijing was keen to push Sino-Indian relations to a “new high.” Analysts said despite the suspicion between the two neighbors – as well as Beijing’s warm ties with Islamabad – the CCP leadership is confident that dramatic improvement in ties with India the past few years would at least persuade New Delhi not to become a pawn in America’s anti-China machinations.

Indeed, Beijing is upbeat that China’s fast-expanding global clout – and especially the vast China market – has better enabled the country to drive a wedge between the U.S. and quite a few of its traditional allies. Take Australia, which was one of the staunchest supporters of Washington’s war against Iraq. Earlier this year, Prime Minister John Howard made it clear that Canberra would not join in the U.S. effort to lobby the European Union to persevere with its embargo on arms exports to China. And last summer, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer indicated that despite the Australia-U.S. joint defense agreement, Canberra could remain neutral if American forces were involved in a war over the Taiwan Strait. Immediately afterwards, Singapore, another close friend of the U.S., made known a similar stance of neutrality regarding a possible U.S.-China military conflict over Taiwan.

In any event, Rice’s unusually candid statements in Tokyo have convinced President Hu, who is deemed within Chinese political circles as much less “pro-U.S.” than former president Jiang Zemin, that he is right to treat Washington with extreme caution. Outwardly, of course, Hu will still cleave to late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that as far as the U.S. is concerned, Beijing should “avoid confrontation and boost cooperation.” Because of China’s dependence on the U.S. market – as well as Beijing’s desire to acquire American technology – the Hu-Wen leadership will continue to bend over backwards to avoid a direct confrontation with America.

However, Beijing’s suspicion that Bush may adopt a harsher China policy during the rest of his presidency could predispose the Hu leadership to be even more determined to boost China’s military arsenal. Hu and his colleagues are also expected to play the “North Korean card” for whatever its worth. The Chinese president and commander-in-chief is due to visit Pyongyang next month for high-level talks with DPRK dictator Kim Jong-il. While Hu will at least go through the motions of persuading Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks, the Chinese supremo will also explore ways to use China’s still-formidable clout with the Hermit Kingdom as a diplomatic weapon against the U.S. – and Japan.

Indeed, another unfortunate result of growing tension between Beijing and Washington is that Sino-Japanese relations are fast heading toward a vicious cycle. Given the intensification of the U.S.-Japanese military alliance – as well as joint U.S.-Japan efforts to persuade Brussels to hold on to its anti-China arms embargo – Beijing is close to giving up hope that it could turn around worsening China-Japan ties in the foreseeable future. This is despite the overture made by Premier Wen last month that both sides should “enthusiastically” create conditions for the resumption of high-level exchanges. Top-level visits between the two neighbors were stopped after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s first visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in 2001. In the past fortnight, a campaign launched by nationalistic Chinese websites to prevent Japan from being made a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council has developed into a boycott of Japanese products in a number of coastal cities.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation as well as a Hong Kong-based journalist and analyst.