Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 22

The re-election of George W. Bush has driven speculation within the international community on whether the second Bush administration’s foreign policy will be more aggressive, continuing a unilateral approach, or make some adjustments and return to a multilateral, cooperative track. In the case of China, it should be admitted that Mr. Bush’s re-election is a piece of good news for the stabilization and development of Sino-US relations. Not only because basic aspects of U.S. China policy will continue their current trend, and that Chinese leaders have established close working and even personal relations with key members of the Bush team, but also because the Bush administration’s attitudes toward China have shifted in a positive direction after September 11th, 2001. As President Hu Jintao said in a telegraph congratulating Mr. Bush on his election in 2004: “Both China and the United States are great countries and share a wide range of common interests and basis for cooperation.” It is quite plausible that this more positive evolution will now continue throughout the next term.

Compared to four years ago, the Bush administration is on a much stronger footing to press forward with its China policy. Firstly, China was not a hot topic during the presidential campaign; indeed, the administration’s “constructive and cooperative” policy with China has been broadly accepted domestically. Secondly, Republican gains in the House and the Senate, coupled with Republican control of Congress, will tend to keep the administration’s China policy out of domestic political struggles. Thirdly, as is the case with many U.S. presidents, Mr. Bush will want to leave a legacy. It could be one of the president’s hopes to establish new, long-term stability within Sino-US relations during his second term.

At the same time, after thirty years of ups and downs in the US-China relationship, a relatively stable, profitable and mature Sino-US framework already began taking shape in Bush’s first term. The strategic position of both China and the United States has become more realistic and reasonable. The “candid, constructive and cooperative relationship” described by the president has led administration officials, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, to frequently emphasize that “US-China relations are at their best since 1972.” Another phrase favored by the Secretary is that the “China-US relationship is too complex to be described by a single term or a single statement.” In diplomatic code, these turns-of-phrase combine to mean that the Sino-US relationship is strong enough to sustain significant differences and divergences.

Also, the basic framework on Taiwan, the most complex and important issue facing the Sino-US relationship, has been once again reaffirmed by the Bush administration. From Bush’s statement on December 9, 2003, to the latest announcement by Colin Powell, the Bush Administration has promised that the “one China policy” will not be changed. In the words of the president: “Any unilateral actions to change the status quo by Taiwan’s government” would be opposed by the U.S.; and, as Colin Powell stated recently, “Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation.”

Cooperation on a host of traditional and non-traditional issues has also fostered a more stable and prosperous relationship. Besides deep economic ties, the two countries have begun to cooperate on non-traditional security issues such as counter-terrorism and in areas of huge divergence (such as how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program). Dozens of fixed and regular mechanisms have been established in recent years, from hot-lines to crisis management, which assure that the relationship as a whole will be less likely to be damaged by any single incident.

Lastly, mutual understanding has become more rational. From the American side, the once prevailing mindset of the “China threat” or “China’s collapse” has gradually been replaced by a more realistic acceptance of “China’s peaceful rise.” As for Beijing, a more cooperative attitude is beginning to overtake negative feelings about “American hegemony.”

But while the current positive trend in US-China relations will likely continue over the course of a second Bush administration, there are three potential problem areas that should not be overlooked. These issues may lead to trouble if both sides deal with them ineffectively.

The first one is the Taiwan conundrum. Though Bush, Powell and other U.S. officials have publicly expressed opposition to any unilateral change in the status quo by Taiwan on formal occasions, U.S. arms sales to the island have not ceased. On the contrary, in this regard the U.S has been blunt and public, sending mixed signals to both sides of the Strait. For China, statements by Bush and other U.S. officials make less sense so long as the issue of arms sales is not being resolved. On the other hand, Taiwan’s leadership does not care very much what America says, so long as U.S. military cooperation continues. Obviously, this causes miscalculations by both sides, making the current situation over the Taiwan Strait more unpredictable. In the coming four years, matters will worsen if the Bush administration reaffirms its position on the selling of weapons like Aegis system.

The second area of concern is the Sino-US bilateral military relationship. Contrary to the warm political and close economic ties which have been fostered during Bush’s time in office, US-Chinese military exchange has been quite tepid. Neither Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld nor his deputy Paul Wolfowitz have gone to China – even after reciprocal visits by China’s Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, PLA Chief of Staff Liang Guanglie, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers and PACCOM Commander Admiral Thomas Fargo. The Pentagon has shown its hostility toward China’s military development in major documents like “Reports on China’s Military Power,” and there has continued to be military exercises aimed directly or indirectly at China. If President Bush hopes to continue improvements in Sino-US relations over the next four years, it is imperative that he push the comprehensive normalization of US-Chinese military relations.

Finally, constant friction between the two countries with regard to trade must be addressed. While the economic issue has been less politicized, trade friction poses a threat to the stable development of bilateral strategic relations. Currently, there still exist quite a few problems, such as America’s trade deficit with China, the revaluation of the Chinese renminbi (RMB), and China’s WTO and intellectual property rights commitments, to name some of the biggest hurdles. It will be a test of both the wisdom of Chinese government and the sincerity of the Bush administration to see if Washington and Beijing can cooperate to put the trade deficit under control and solve it properly. However, in the final analysis, it is expected that China’s new leaders and the second Bush Administration will take this opportunity to deepen and widen the bilateral cooperation while working together on security issues like counter-terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear issue.