Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 7

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Was September 11 good for Sino-American relations? It’s still a matter of hot debate among Chinese cadres and intellectuals.

The so-called Mainstream Faction in Beijing thinks that the terrorist attacks on the United States and the global antiterrorist campaign could spell a boon to ties with Washington. The “China threat” theory, for example, may lose its currency as more American politicians and citizens become convinced the nation’s enemies No. 1 are Islamic extremists. Moreover, Washington needs Chinese cooperation in rooting out Osama bin Laden and his accomplices–and joint Sino-U.S. efforts in this area could set the stage for closer cooperation in other fields. From Beijing’s perspective, another factor that bodes well for bilateral relations is simply the fact that American strength has been considerably dented.


Quite a number of Chinese experts agree with bestselling military authors Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, who pointed out soon after the terrorist attacks that “the day September 11 will likely mark the beginning of the decline of America as superpower.” These experts argue that American power in the foreseeable future would be sapped by a multidimensional war against a faceless enemy. And the United States might also be bogged down in a protracted and costly conflict with a sizeable part of the Islamic and Arab world. And of course, the Chinese leadership would rather do business with a weakened, somewhat humbled United States.

Yet an even more positive development cited by Beijing’s America watchers is that Washington may be abandoning its “unilateralism.” For example, a top U.S. expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Wang Yizhou, pointed out the need to build an antiterrorism alliance should force the United States to decide “whether it should adopt a unilateralist or multilateralist diplomacy.”

Vice Foreign Trade Minister Long Yongtu thought the horrific incidents in New York and Washington had “changed America’s long-standing attitude to world affairs. The United States now knows it won’t do to continue with unilateralism, and that it needs to do many things in tandem with other countries,” he said. “They have understood the importance of multilateral discussions.” So far, Jiang seems to agree that Beijing should not lose this opportunity to mend fences with the administration of President George W. Bush.

While the on-going skirmishes in Afghanistan are taking place not too far from China’s backyard, Beijing has maintained an uncharacteristically low profile. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response immediately after the missiles rained on Kabul and Kandahar on October 8 was mild if also deliberately vague. It said while Beijing supported antiterrorist actions in general, such actions should be “targeted at specific objectives’ and be in accordance with the principles and resolutions of the United Nations. Beijing, however, no longer insisted that military action be undertaken under direct UN auspices. And it avoided explicit value judgments on the air strikes themselves. The same points were repeated by Jiang in his telephone conversation with Bush the same day. The Chinese media quoted Bush as thanking Beijing for its “strong statement against global terrorist networks.”

A major reason for Beijing’s compliance is its anxiety to boost ties with the United States–and to gain something nifty along the way. While talking with a delegation of American bankers in Beijing in early October, Jiang even revived the idea of some form of partnership with America. “The Chinese government thinks China and the United States should develop a constructive relationship of cooperation,” Jiang said. It was the first time after the spy plane incident of April that he had raised the possibility of a Sino-American partnership.


Partnership, of course, has its privileges. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has dropped strong hints that in return for its acquiescence in American attacks on the Taliban, Beijing hopes that the United States would make concessions on the Taiwan front. For example, Beijing is pushing Bush to pledge to scale down arms sale to Taiwan. The Foreign Ministry has also asked Washington to lift its remaining sanctions on China, the same way that America had done with Pakistan and India. Diplomatic analysts said, however, that there was no sign that Washington would be forthcoming on these scores–and Beijing’s failure to get something substantial in return could change its policy of acquiescence in the coming months.

So far, all that Bush has done is to give Beijing–and particularly Jiang–face by agreeing to come to Shanghai for two days of meetings at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) later this month. Indeed, Beijing has let the world know how much it cares about Bush’s attendance by issuing a news release just hours after the October 8 missile strikes that the U.S. president would keep his Shanghai date. However, according to a Chinese source familiar with Beijing’s preparations for APEC, Bush’s attendance might also prove a big embarrassment for host Jiang. After all, Beijing’s original goal for APEC was to showcase China’s status as an “emergent regional superpower,” or at least the only economy that had weathered the global recession this year.

Beijing’s pride was amply demonstrated by the spin it had put on its recent purchase of US$1.6 billion worth of Boeing aircraft. The deal was billed by Chinese officials and media as a shot in the arm of the post-September 11 American economy. “We won’t forget our friends, especially at a time of difficulties,” the Chinese official media quoted Vice Minister of State Planning Zhang Guobao as saying. Yet, given that the world’s focus in the weeks if not months ahead will be on Afghanistan, Beijing’s APEC gameplan would likely be upstaged by the antiterrorist imperative. “There is little question that Bush will use APEC as a platform for rallying support for his tough tactics against bin Laden and the Taliban,” an Asian diplomat said. “Bush will particularly try to appeal to leaders of countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, who have shown reservations about a large-scale strike at Afghanistan.”

By contrast, Beijing’s somewhat wishy-washy stance on terrorism may make it look weak in the eyes of several countries it had hoped to win over at APEC: Those from the developing world that agree with Beijing’s effort to promote a more “equitable,” non-U.S. dominated, global economic order. Meanwhile, as the military action intensified in Afghanistan, even such a “pro-U.S.” cadre as Jiang would have to come to grips with the downside of the military campaign being waged by the United States and its allies.

A few days before the air strikes began, Jiang called a meeting of senior Politburo colleagues and key advisers in the Zhongnanhai party headquarters in downtown Beijing. He reportedly raised three questions about the looming war: how long the military action will last, how large its scale will be and what Washington’s “real objectives” are. Sources close to Beijing’s diplomatic establishment said Jiang was worried about alleged efforts by the Bush administration to extend U.S. “hegemonism” to central Asia–and to establish a foothold in China’s southwest backyard.

In Beijing’s perception, the more prolonged and extensive the military effort, the more likely it is that Washington could achieve goals anathema to China. These include setting up a pro-U.S. regime in Kabul, establishing a substantial presence in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and engineering a tilt toward the United States within the Pakistani government. A number of senior academics have raised fears the Bush team might be using the antiterrorist crusade as a pretext to extend America’s reach–and to complete the encirclement of China. As top America watcher Shi Yinhong put it, Washington’s tendency to play world policeman will increase after the United States had fallen victim to Muslim extremism. The September 11 shock, Shi argued, would aggravate Washington’s “crude, simplistic and non-discriminating” outlook on world affairs. Moreover, as Beijing Energy Research Institute economist Zhu Xingshan indicated, U.S. predominance in the Central Asia “could have far reaching impact on China’s petroleum security.” This was a reference to China’s plans to either import oil from countries in this region or to construct oil pipelines through them. Worse, American success against the Taliban and its allies might goad Islamic extremists based in countries including Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to flee to China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which is home to more than 7 million Muslim Uighurs. That is why a few days after September 11, Jiang dispatched senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) staff to Xinjiang to beef up security measures. The officers reportedly included Vice Chief of Staff General Xiong Guangkai, a veteran head of military intelligence and leading expert on the United States.

While Jiang’s military advisers have reassured him that the short Sino-Afghan border is secure and there is no danger of a massive influx of refugees into southern Xinjiang, the president is said to be unhappy about the latest turn of events. Of course, whether Beijing could turn September 11 and its aftermath in its favor depends on the outcome of the “mini-summit” between Jiang and Bush in Shanghai. Given that Jiang will retire from his most important position of party general secretary at the Communist Party’s 16th congress next year, the APEC conferences would be one of his last chances to play the role of senior international statesman.

Diplomatic sources say it is likely Jiang and Bush will in their tete-a-tete confirm some form of cooperation in the fight against terrorism, including the swapping of intelligence. That an exchange mechanism will be put in place between the FBI and the secretive Ministry of State Security could be construed as proof of amelioration in Sino-U.S. ties. Bush may heap more praise on Beijing as a responsible member of the global community through at least tacitly going along with his antiterrorist crusade. And television images of Jiang and Bush shaking hands enthusiastically are precisely what the Chinese president needs to justify his controversial “great power diplomacy” to a domestic audience.

Beijing-based analysts say, however, that unless Jiang can secure something more concrete than mere symbols of Sino-U.S. friendship, the president may find it difficult to parry a growing tide of internal criticism of his U.S. policy. Already, PLA hawks as well as nationalistic intellectuals have groused that Beijing’s response to a potentially massive conflagration at its doorstep has been too weak. Jiang’s detractors have also claimed his policy of acquiescence regarding the bombings in Afghanistan has already cost China friends in the Arab and Muslim world. And it is only due to the gag order that Jiang has put on the generals and radical intellectuals that such voices have not been heard by the outside world.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.