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How will the election of George W. Bush affect U.S.-China relations? The conventional wisdom was that a Gore administration would have been more favorable to China — a questionable assumption based in part on the belief that Al Gore would be more inclined to continue President Bill Clinton’s policies of engagement and support for “one China,” the real litmus tests for Washington as far as Beijing is concerned. However, these policies have been consistently followed for years by Republican and Democratic administrations alike, and there is no reason to believe that any future U.S. administration is going to change them, absent some dramatic destabilizing action by Beijing.

Meanwhile, on human-rights and labor issues, Gore would likely have been tougher on China than Bush. Bush also appears less amenable to humanitarian intervention than Clinton has been and Gore could reasonably have been expected to be; recall Bush’s admonitions about the need for “leadership without arrogance” and for more judicious use of U.S. forces abroad.

In truth, China was not an issue in the election. Both candidates sent strong signals that they would continue to engage China, while also confirming that the U.S.-Japan relationship would still enjoy pride of place in Asia. True, Bush made it clear that the current Sino-U.S. “constructive strategic partnership” buzzword will be superseded. But even the most enthusiastic cheerleaders recognize that this lofty goal is unattainable today (or in the next four years), given the two nations’ differing world views. Regardless of the Bush administration’s chosen catchphrase, some form of “cooperative engagement and managed competition” is likely to guide relations between Beijing and Washington during the next four years.

On the issue most pressing to China, no U.S. administration would be able to ignore an unprovoked Chinese attack against Taiwan; U.S. credibility in Asia and globally would be at stake. Even China’s friend, Clinton, sent two aircraft carriers in response to Chinese saber-rattling in 1996. Were Beijing to take some action to test Bush’s resolve, an equally firm, or firmer, response should be expected. Keep in mind that the catalyst here would be a Chinese, not an American action. In truth, the real answer to the question about future Sino-U.S. relations will depend as much on Chinese behavior, and on Beijing’s willingness or desire to “test” the new U.S. president as it will on who occupies the Oval Office.

Fortunately, a Chinese military action against Taiwan appears the least likely method that Beijing would employ to test the mettle of soon-to-be President Bush. Even if the United States did not respond militarily, the political and economic sanctions employed by America and its allies –and one would assume, at a minimum, a complete halt in Japanese aid and overseas developmental assistance — would likely cripple China’s economy. And, of course, Beijing must assume that Bush would respond militarily.

So, without an unambiguously provocative act on the part of Taipei, a Chinese military move against Taiwan is highly unlikely. A more probable maneuver would be a renewed attempt to change the rules regarding Taiwan’s WTO accession. Taiwan, following its GATT precedent, is prepared to enter the WTO not as a separate country but as the “separate customs territory of Taiwan.” Beijing was rebuffed once when it insisted Taiwan be admitted, instead, as a “separate customs territory of China,” but we may not have heard the last on this issue.

China will also be sure to press Bush for a renewed U.S. commitment to the “one China” principle. It will likely get this, although the wording will be more like pre-Clinton pronouncements “acknowledging” (rather than endorsing) the Chinese position. Bush will be under great pressure domestically not to repeat the famous three no’s uttered by Clinton in Shanghai — no Taiwan independence; no two Chinas or one China, one Taiwan; and no Taiwanese participation in international organizations involving sovereign states. Any heavy-handed attempt by Beijing to get Bush to put the three no’s in writing is sure to fail and will likely backfire.

It is also important to note that Clinton mentioned five no’s; the other two were no use of force and no change to Taiwan’s status without the consent of the people of Taiwan. The latter two appear destined to play a central role in future U.S. policy on cross-strait developments.

The Korean Peninsula is another area where Beijing may choose to be either cooperative or confrontational. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has been calling for a resumption of the four-party talks (involving North and South Korea, the U.S. and China). These talks have been on hold since August 1999, stalemated over Pyongyang’s insistence (presumably with Beijing’s backing, if not instigation) that the U.S. military presence on the peninsula be put on the bargaining table. Kim now asserts that his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Il, may actually favor a continued U.S. presence. It remains to be seen how China will handle this turn of events.

Another area where a test of wills could emerge is over the recurring problem of Chinese missile exports. China, after much prodding from the Clinton administration, announced in late November 2000 a missile-export policy consistent with the Missile Technology Control Regime. Bush will likely be compelled early on to deal with allegations, real or imagined, of Chinese noncompliance. He must be careful not to overreact to unsubstantiated accusations. But Beijing must understand that a failure to vigorously enforce its new missile-export policy would result in an unwelcome but unavoidable test of U.S. resolve.

China may also choose a confrontation over theater missile defense. Bush can be expected to proceed with TMD in close cooperation with Japan. Taiwan will likely be neither ruled in nor ruled out, unless Beijing forces the issue with renewed missile “tests” close to Taiwan, as in 1996. If China was foolish enough to choose this as its test of U.S. resolve, Bush would have little option but to enhance Taiwan’s protection. A Chinese decision to ease up on its missile-export restrictions in response to U.S. pursuit of TMD (or national missile defense) would be equally troubling, as would a continued, accelerated buildup of Chinese missiles opposite Taiwan.

Beijing also faces a decision regarding its traditionally strident rhetoric against U.S. “unilateralism, hegemonism and the destabilizing U.S.-Japan alliance.” Washington and Tokyo, in a long overdue move, have started taking Beijing to task over this rhetoric and it would be difficult for Bush to ignore such verbal attacks. Conversely, a more moderate Chinese stance on any of these issues, and especially vis-a-vis Taiwan, would help get the new relationship off to a more promising start.

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