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Jiang's tough tactics on U.S. policy

China's president (with Zhu Rongji, R) is expected to wield the terrorism card during a trip to Iran and Libya this month
China's president (with Zhu Rongji, R) is expected to wield the terrorism card during a trip to Iran and Libya this month  

Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

(CNN) -- Beijing's restrained reaction to President George W. Bush's slip-of-the-tongue characterization of Taiwan as the "Republic of Taiwan" says much about the Chinese leadership's American policy.

Immediately after Bush made the supposed verbal error last Thursday, President Jiang Zemin and his colleagues asked state TV and newspapers to keep mum over the offending reference.

Web sites were allowed to carry a brief account of the incident, and stopped short of criticizing the U.S. other than quoting the editorial of a pro-Beijing Hong Kong paper, which said the "Republic of Taiwan" remark was an "error of the heart" rather than a verbal mistake.

The forbearance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is all the more remarkable given other evidence that points to an increasing pro-Taiwan tilt in Washington.

For example, Bush last week signaled his support for Taiwan's gaining observer status at the World Health Assembly.

A Taiwan caucus is being formed in Congress whose task is to promote the interests of what Beijing calls its "renegade province."

And so-called pro-Taiwan politicians in America have given their backing to Taipei's efforts to import more arms from the U.S., Europe and even Israel.

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Taiwan experts in the Chinese capital fear these developments might culminate in a "private visit" to the U.S. by President Chen Shui-bian in the coming year.

It is important to note, however, that while Jiang is following late patriarch Deng Xiaoping's policy of "seeking cooperation and avoiding confrontation" with the U.S., he is also adopting tough tactics to rein in what Beijing regards as Bush's "unilateralism" and "neo-hegemonism."

Jiang, who is visiting Germany this week at the start of a five-nation tour, is flashing what analysts call the European Union card for whatever it is worth.

The CCP leadership has made it quite obvious it will buy more from -- and give more contracts to -- EU companies should relations with the U.S. be mired in disputes over Taiwan.

This is despite the fact that the country's World Trade Organization membership means politics and diplomacy should at least theoretically be kept apart from investment and trade.

Rare opportunity

Jiang arrives in Berlin with his wife Wang Yeping
Jiang arrives in Berlin with his wife Wang Yeping  

To underscore Beijing's enhanced enthusiasm for Europe, Beijing last week accorded extraordinarily high protocol to the EU Commissioner for External Affairs, Chris Patten.

Patten, who angered the Chinese by pushing democratic reforms in Hong Kong when he was Governor from 1992 to 1997, was given the rare opportunity of addressing the Central Communist Party School.

And as a gesture of goodwill to EU's largest economy, Jiang indicated in an interview with a German paper that Beijing supported Germany's acquiring a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Even more significantly, the Chinese president will be wielding the "terrorism card" during visits in the next fortnight to Iran and Libya, which Washington has described respectively as a member of an "axis of evil" and a rogue state.

Diplomatic analysts said that since September 11, Beijing had gone along with Washington's military actions in Afghanistan -- and its stationing of troops in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, deemed China's northwestern backyard.

However, the analysts said Beijing would not necessarily cleave to its policy of acquiescence should Bush extend the anti-terrorist movement to Iraq and other nations.

"Throughout America's anti-terrorist campaign, Beijing has kept up its good ties with the Arab and Muslim world," said a source close to Beijing's foreign-policy establishment.

"Jiang's visits to Iran and Libya are a way of telling Bush China's help in America's anti-terrorist campaign is conditional upon the state of Sino-U.S. ties, particularly the Taiwan question."

UN mandate

The source said throughout his on-going trip, Jiang would make clear China's opposition to possible U.S. strikes against Iraq -- or other efforts to broaden the anti-terrorist movement without a UN mandate.

This message will be repeated by Premier Zhu Rongji when he visits Turkey, Egypt and Kenya later this month.

And then there is, of course, the military card. Beijing last week denied reports in the Washington Times that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had moved more short-range missiles to its bases opposite Taiwan.

However, analysts have cited how the mainland media had played up the military significance of the launch of the Shenzhou unmanned spaceship late last month.

For example, much was made of the fact that China was now capable of "space warfare."

And on Sunday, official papers reported that a Shanghai-based institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences had developed a super-laser beam that was capable of being turned into a star wars-style weapon.

Jiang, who gave a pep talk to senior generals at the Shenzhou launch site, said the country had to take the path of "using science and technology to strengthen the army."


And the CCP leadership is understood to have approved more funds -- much of which is not included in the official PLA budget -- for military research and development.

Beijing's strategy seems to be that it will take on the U.S. when its economic and military prowess has assumed quasi-superpower status some time in the next decade.

In the near term, therefore, few observers expect Beijing's multi-pronged maneuvers to plunge Sino-U.S. relations into a crisis.

Jiang, who is eager to have his image as international elder statesman burnished by a visit to the U.S. in October, is still reluctant to stray too far from Deng's "never take the lead" dictum on diplomacy.

It is also expected that Jiang's successor as party chief and president, Hu Jintao, will follow in his mentor's footsteps -- at least for a few more years.

However, it seems apparent that the widespread perception in China of Bush's near-betrayal of the one-China principle has triggered an upsurge of anti-U.S. feelings at least among the urban populace.

Online interest

And this phenomenon is by no means confined to PLA hawks or nationalistic academics.

The authorities were surprised by the large number of anti-American postings in web chat-rooms just hours after Bush's "verbal error".

Also extraordinary was the show of support for pilot Wang Wei, who was lionized by Beijing after he perished in the wake of his fighter jet's collision with the American spy plane last April.

The Wang Wei Memorial Web site put out by the authorities reportedly recorded more than 150,000 hits in one day.

According to Tsinghua University scholar Yan Xuetong, Bush's "Republic of Taiwan" remark was indirect evidence Washington wanted to "formalize its military alliance with Taiwan."

Signals given by Jiang both at home and abroad that Beijing has what it takes to stand up to the Americans seem to portend that should bilateral differences over Taiwan deteriorate, a showdown with the U.S. is inevitable over the long haul.




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