Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 6

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

While the United States is correct to seek China’s assistance in what will be a long war against terrorism, it should harbor no illusions that China will share all of America’s goals in this fight, or that China will cease being a longer term adversary.

Yes, Chinese President Jiang Zemin was swift to condemn the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and China appears to be ready to share counterterrorism intelligence. So far, President George W. Bush has affirmed his intention to visit China for a late October summit. At a basic level it would be very good to have Beijing’s full cooperation for the many battles ahead. China could contribute a great deal to the U.S. understanding of the Taliban and radical elements in Pakistan.


Cooperation over the common threat of terrorism, however, will not remove the current conflicts in the Washington-Beijing relationship, to include the future of democratic Taiwan, U.S. alliances in Asia, and China’s nuclear and missile proliferation. Furthermore, China has patiently cultivated relationships with Iran, Iraq and, more recently, the Taliban of Afghanistan to advance its own consistent goal of undermining U.S. power. Thus, future Chinese assistance in the war on terror can only be meaningful if China reverses the aid it has given to a number of rogue states.

For example, should Osama bin Laden or his allies obtain a nuclear weapon in the future, it is likely that many of its components will come via Pakistan or Iran, and could very well carry the stamp “Made in China.” China’s assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program dates back to the mid-1970s and includes the training of engineers, provision of nuclear fuel reprocessing components, and perhaps even the plans to make nuclear weapons. China has sold Pakistan over thirty 180-mile range M-11 ballistic missiles. Even more disturbing, China has also sold Pakistan the means to build solid fueled 450-mile range Shaheen-I and 1,200-mile range Shaheen-II missiles. China has sold Iran both nuclear-reactor and nuclear-fuel reprocessing components, and cruise missiles that could conceivably carry a small nuclear device.

For over a decade, America has been “engaging” Chinese officials in a now-familiar pattern of repeated U.S. complaints, Chinese promises not to proliferate and occasional slap-on-the-wrist sanctions by Washington, but with no definitive Chinese cessation of proliferation. So far, Beijing is correct to question U.S. resolve. It took the Bush administration until August this year to impose some sanctions on Chinese companies selling Shaheen missile parts to Pakistan. But this is far better than the Clinton administration, which produced no Shaheen-related sanctions during its two terms, even though the program very likely began during Clinton’s first term.

This failure to stop Chinese proliferation helped fuel the ongoing nuclear missile race between India and Pakistan. And as the latter weakens under pressure from those hardline Islamic forces powerful in the Pakistan Armed Forces, the danger increases that nuclear weapon technology could fall into the hands of radical groups like bin Laden’s. But rather than isolate radical Islamic regimes that harbor or aid terrorists, Beijing engages them as well. Last February, China was caught red-handed helping Saddam Hussein to build new fiber-optic communications networks that will enable his missiles to better shoot down U.S. aircraft. These improvements are suspected of helping Iraq shoot down two American reconnaissance drones in recent weeks. Beginning in late 1998, according to some reports, after it gave Beijing some unexploded U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles, the Taliban began receiving economic and military aid from China.

But beyond simply helping regimes that in turn help terrorists like bin Laden, China, incredibly, may be attracted to using terrorist methods as well. Bin Laden himself has a fan club in some quarters of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In their 1999 book “Unrestricted Warfare,” two PLA political commissars offer praise for the tactics of bin Laden. The authors note that bin Laden’s tactics are as legitimate as the tactics that U.S. General Norman Schwartzkopf used in the Gulf War. To highlight the utility of bin Laden’s tactics these authors note that the “American military is inadequately prepared to deal with this type of enemy.” While some U.S. analysts downplay “Unrestricted Warfare” as written by officers with no operational authority, it is well known that the PLA is preparing to wage unconventional warfare, especially cyber warfare.

Indeed, the September 11 debacle demonstrated America’s vulnerability to unconventional attack, as it also gave the PLA insight into U.S. military emergency contingencies. China is building up its PLA, to include development of cyber warfare, to achieve “unification” with Taiwan under Beijing’s terms. China could be tempted to use military force against Taiwan should the war on terrorism force a diminished U.S. military presence in Asia. As part of such an attack, the PLA would want to shut down the U.S. air transport system. The PLA now knows this can be done with four groups of terrorists, or perhaps by computer hackers that can enter the U.S. air traffic control system and cause four major airline collisions.


So before he flies to China for his late-October summit with Jiang Zemin, President Bush should consider China’s real utility in the war on terrorism and what it must do to qualify as a U.S. ally. Tough rhetoric and photo-ops should not qualify China for ally status in a war that will cost the lives of many more U.S. and allied citizens. But the United States can demand that China must stop lying about its nuclear and missile technology proliferation, and demand that China prevents states like Pakistan and Iran from fielding nuclear missiles. Also, China must end its economic and military commerce with regimes that harbor terrorists, such as the Taliban and Iraq.

It is also necessary to warn China that America will retain the means to defend Taiwan from military attack so long as China is intent on preparing for war against the democratic island. It is also necessary to exercise caution in relaxing any high technology sanctions on China unless its cooperation in fighting terrorism extends to a true reversal of its proliferation activities and its aid for regimes that harbor terrorists.

In his September 20 speech to the nation, President Bush correctly declared that “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” China’s support for the Taliban and Iraq, and its record of nuclear proliferation in Pakistan and Iran are not the actions of a friendly regime. To qualify as America’s ally in this new war China must first undo all it has done to strengthen the sources of terrorism.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is the managing editor of the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief.