Posted On

* Original contribution to QeRN*
Ever since U.S. independence, its relations with China have tested the mettle of American diplomacy. At some points in history, the gulf between the two nations seemed wider than the ocean that separates its shores. Taiwan/ Human rights/ Religion/ Detention of Academics/ Missile defense/ Trade problems are some of the major issues that have challenged China and the U.S. for decades.

However, after the Sept 11 attacks and the meeting of U.S. president Bush and Chinese president Jiang at the summit of APEC in China, human-rights groups and long- time critics of China in Washington will be watching Bush for signs of concessions to Beijing in return for its support.

China’s quick reaction after the Sept 11 attack, and the subsequent ‘undoubted’, ‘side by side’ support to U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan shows that the Chinese have never been in a better mood to rebuild their relationship with Washington, and they know that now the U.S. needs them, too. Bush will try not to mention dissidents, or Taiwan, or the dust-up with the spy plane to China while the Chinese will bring it up to use as bargaining chips!

Having had continuing problems from the Muslim Uighur separatist in its Western provinces, China believes that the Al-Qaeda and Taliban trained the Uighur separatists also and continue providing weapons and support to them. On that premise, Osama bin Laden becomes the common enemy of both U.S. and China, and thus China has become a firm supporter of US “antiterrorism war”. However, it may want to redefine terrorism to provide a further justification for the crackdown on Muslim Uighur separatists and Tibetan independence supporters — people who might have been known in Mr. Bush’s Washington, until a few weeks ago, as “dissidents”.

In this context, China may think it has a freer hand to crack down the separation without worrying about the objection from the U.S. and international human rights organizations.

These hopes were dashed at the press conference after the meeting of Bush and Jiang, where Mr. Bush clearly asked China not to use “terrorism” as an excuse to crack down on political dissent.

Mr. Jiang Zemin was quick to retaliate, mentioning the Taiwan issue as a stumbling block in U.S.-China relations. Taiwan is the most sensitive issue for China and JiangÂ’s repetition of the Taiwan issue at the summit shows that he will keep it on the front burner in negotiations with his counterpart, Bush. However, this would no doubt be rejected by Washington, unless some under-the-table deal is reached. Considering itself the international policeman, the U.S. does not want to undermine its presence in the far East. Also, the U.S. wants to show Pakistan and other countries that it stands besides its “friends”. Leaving Taiwan high and dry at this stage will send a chill around the globe. So, any concessions by the U.S. on the Taiwan issue appear remote.

The U.S. has said there will be no quid pro quo for China’s continuing support in the “war on terrorism.” But Washington’s need for international backing clearly gives Beijing a better bargaining position.

In a sign of improving relations, US Secretary of State Colin Powell has already back-tracked on the Bush administration’s early description of China as a strategic competitor, saying the relationship is too complex to capture in a single phrase or slogan.

Will Bush compromise or how much he will compromise still remains a question. Thus how supportive Jiang will be? It should be noted that the U.S. is spending its political capital at a breakneck speed, and any mis-steps or unforeseen circumstances will lead to a bankrupt U.S. diplomatic policy and erode its clout around the world very fast.

In short, this relationship continues to be more complex than any other bilateral relationship in the world. One thing we can bet on: the shrewdness of Chinese foreign policy gurus. These people will make sure that they draw the maximum mileage out of the current global crisis.