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Beijing battles U.S. 'China threat' theory

(CNN) -- Danger signals are flashing in Sino-American relations.

Beijing's main complaint is that Washington is looking at China through Cold-War lenses -- thwarting its bid for quasi-superpower status.

Less than two months into the administration of President George W. Bush, his Chinese counterpart has asked top aides to come up with ways to arrest what Beijing perceives as the downward spiral in bilateral ties.


According to diplomatic sources in the Chinese capital, the Chinese view of U.S. intentions is bleak. And Taiwan is but one of the apples of discord.

President Jiang Zemin, who got on remarkably well with former president Bill Clinton, was thankful for the latter's unambiguous endorsement of Beijing's one-China policy.

During his China visit in 1998, Clinton made a public declaration of the so-called 'three nos' policy. That is: "no to Taiwan independence; no to one China, one Taiwan; and no to Taiwan joining global organizations requiring statehood for membership."

"Jiang fears that while Clinton recognized and seconded Beijing's one-China policy, Bush would merely agree to acknowledge China's claim to Taiwan," said a source close to Beijing's foreign policy establishment.

He added the Chinese leadership saw a big gap between recognition and endorsement on the one hand, and grudging acknowledgement on the other.

Aiding Taiwan

Beijing's worries stem from Bush's remarks during the presidential campaign that the U.S. should come to Taiwan's aid if the latter were attacked by the mainland.

And the Bush team has dropped strong hints they favor selling Taiwan sophisticated weapons, with a number of senior Bush advisers privately indicating that Taiwan should be put under America's anti-missile defense umbrella.

Perhaps even more important than the Taiwan issue is Beijing's conception of the Bush administration's "hegemonistic agenda."

In Chinese eyes, Bush has abandoned the understanding that Jiang had reached with Clinton -- at least until the crisis over the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade -- that the two countries should seek a "constructive, strategic partnership geared toward the 21st century."

Implicit in the partnership idea is that the U.S. considers China, a self-styled quasi-superpower, as an equal.

Moreover it carries with it the idea that the two should, together with major blocs and countries such as the European Union and Russia, work together to construct a multi-polar world order.

Jiang sees in developments such as Washington's decision to deploy the national missile defense (NMD) system and recent air strikes against Iraq evidence of America's naked attempt to build a hegemonistic, unipolar world.

Beijing is also alarmed by the perception that most of Bush's senior defense and foreign-policy officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as their deputies, are unalloyed hawks.

Calls for balance

As Jiang indicated while meeting a German delegation last month: "We are opposed to the NMD… We support a multi-polar world because uni-polarity does not make for balance."

Chinese Academic of Social Sciences expert Cheng Bifan put it more bluntly: Bush's NMD agenda, he said, meant Washington wanted to "maintain America's hegemonist position through the 21st century."

Moreover, Beijing is convinced that while Bush's father, the former president, was instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the U.S. President is pursuing a Cold War-vintage "anti-China containment policy".

Apart from using Taiwan -- and other allies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines -- to "encircle" China, the U.S. is seen as flashing the human rights card to interfere in its domestic affairs.

Internal party documents say that the Falun Gong spiritual group has benefited from millions of dollars in aid from quasi-political organizations in the U.S.

Equally significant is that Jiang, who heads the Communist Party's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, is personally hurt that Bush has refused to recognize China's status as an emergent world-class power.

Bush has made it known that the first priority of his Asian policy is to firm up the relationship with long-time allies, in particular Japan.

Nor has Beijing lost sight of the fact that the top Asian hands in the Bush administration are experts on Japan or Southeast Asia - not China.

"Washington is looking at us through Cold War lenses," Jiang said in an internal party meeting.

'Great power diplomacy'

"The China in the eyes of the Bush team is the China of the early 1990s. They have failed to see the phenomenal progress we have made the past several years in areas including the economy and the military."

What is at stake is more than just face, according to a Western diplomat familiar with Jiang's foreign policy.

"Jiang thinks one of his lasting achievements is 'great power diplomacy'," one diplomat said.

"This means Jiang has enabled China to play a big role on the world stage. Bush's failure to accord China great power status has threatened to diminish Jiang's legacy even as the latter is planning his retirement."

Living up to his reputation as China's premier diplomatic strategist, Jiang has formulated a multi-pronged plan to deal with the harsh new realities.

Firstly, Beijing is acting quickly and aggressively to tell Washington that the U.S. stands to lose from a retrogression in ties.

In the past month, Beijing has dispatched two teams -- one consisting of three former ambassadors to the U.S. and the other led by a Harvard-trained official in the Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhou Mingwei -- to Washington.

And Jiang's principal adviser on foreign affairs, Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, is due in Washington later this month to persuade Bush to at least not sell top-of-the-line weapons such as Aegis-class destroyers to Taiwan.

Secondly, Beijing is playing the commercial card for whatever it's worth.

Mindful of how big U.S. businesses had successfully lobbied Washington on issues such as granting China permanent normal trading relations, Beijing is set to further cozy up to corporate America.

Analysts said China would be sending more buying delegations to the U.S. -- and spending more efforts to convince American companies of the dazzling opportunities after the country's accession to the World Trade Organization.

Thirdly, Beijing is pursuing an "anti-encirclement policy" through boosting relations, particularly military ones, with neighbors including Russia, North Korea and Myammar. Ties with erstwhile enemies such as India and Vietnam have also been improved.

In the final analysis, however, Jiang believes that the most reliable deterrent to American "hegemonism" is boosting China's technology and military prowess.

A recent article in the Liberation Army Daily quoted Jiang as pointing out that a major reason why "some Western countries" were able to pursue hegemonistic goals was the stranglehold they had on high technology and on weapons.

Jiang was quoted as saying it was imperative that "we boost the hi-tech content of our weapons systems" and that China be able to win in a hi-tech warfare.

At the recently held Central-Level Work Meeting, the president said it was too early to form a judgment on Bush's China policy and that Beijing should still adopt a wait and see attitude.

Analysts, however, are worried that a vicious cycle has already set in.

Recent developments such as Beijing's purchase of SU-30 jet-fighters from Russia and the 17.7 percent boast in the army budget would provide the "anti-China lobby" in the U.S. with new evidence to buttress the so-called China Threat theory.

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