by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
three months old, the administration of President George W. Bush appears to have brought U.S.-Chinese relations to their lowest ebb in almost 30 years.
With the crew of the U.S. spy plane forced to land in Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese fighter April 1 safely back home, the administration has seemed determined to add insult to injury at just about every opportunity.
It not only offered to sell Taiwan almost every piece of sophisticated military equipment it had wanted to buy, Bush himself told a nationally televised audience last week that Washington would do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China.
While his administration later insisted that Bush's words were not intended to signal the abandonment of a 30-year policy of "strategic ambiguity," a policy designed to keep both China and Taiwan guessing about how Washington would respond to a Chinese attack on the island, which Beijing regards as a renegade province, Vice President Dick Cheney, in yet another interview, suggested that the old policy should be ditched.
This week, matters only became more dicey.
Launching his campaign to develop and deploy a national missile defence (NMD), Bush suggested that Washington and Moscow might be able to cooperate on a joint defense at some point and announced that he will send high-level delegations next week to consult fully with U.S. allies and friends in Europe and Asia on U.S. plans.
About China, which regards Washington's NMD plans to be directed primarily against itself, he said nothing except that he expected to "reach out" to Beijing about the plan.
Worse, from Beijing's viewpoint, it turns out that the allies and friends the high-level delegation to Asia will visit include not only Japan and South Korea, with which Washington has treaty relationships, but also India, which has virtually no strategic ties with the United States, but which considers China its main strategic rival.
"This is containment, pure and simple," said one Congressional aide this week after hearing that India was on the Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's itinerary. "China can't be happy about the symbolism of ranking India with Japan and Korea."
The insults did not end there, however. On May 2, just as China was permitting U.S. technicians to examine the spy plane, which remained on Hainan Island after the crew was released, the Pentagon announced the suspension of all military-to-military exchanges with China.
Apparently that was too much for the State Department and the White House, which claimed two hours later that a top aide to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld had misinterpreted his order and that future military exchanges would be decided on a "case-by-case" basis.
By the end of the week, China was itself hardening its tone against the United States, charging that Washington was seeking "absolute military supremacy" in the world and warning that it was "drifting further down a dangerous road."
questions were not far from the minds of analysts here, too, who have been somewhat amazed at some of the steps taken by the new administration and the way those steps have been taken.
What is unclear to them is whether the administration is calculating its way toward confrontation with China or whether it is stumbling in that direction. Opinions are divided on that question.
"I think they are still feeling their way," said Alan Romberg, a former senior State Department expert on China, who noted that the quick countermand by the White House of the Pentagon's orders to cut military ties with Beijing suggested a breakdown in inter-agency consultations which might be expected of a new administration.
Minxin Pei, a China specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also attributes the early missteps to "incompetence and carelessness" rather than premeditation. But, he said, the relationship, particularly given the damage done by the spy-plane incident, may not be strong enough to survive more of the same.
"If this kind of (performance) continues at top levels, then we will drift in the direction of a (new cold war)," he told IPS, adding that he found the decision to include India and exclude China in the itinerary of the delegation charged with briefing U.S. allies in Asia was "stunning."
Of course, there remains a great deal that ties the United States and China together, not least of which is a more than $80 billion a year trading relationship, as well as the investment of tens of billions of dollars by U.S. businesses in China.
In addition, the two countries, both with veto power in the UN Security Council, have cooperated closely on a number of multilateral and regional problems in which they have a common strategic interest, including the containment of Afghanistan and the maintenance of peace in the Koreas.
"Both sides are being publicly muscular at the moment, but I think the underlying fundamentals are what they've been for some time," says John Ford, a lobbyist at the U.S.-China Business Council. "I don't see that going down the drain."
But others, even some who expressed similar views about the durability of the underlying relationship just a few weeks ago, are not so sure now. "Ties are at a low ebb, and they could get lower," says Nicholas Lardy, a specialist on China's economy at the influential Brookings Institution here.
"I don't think there's any question the concern level is going up in the business community and elsewhere," he notes, adding that the administration's to-and-fro on Taiwan and military contacts suggested that "no clear policy course" has been set yet.
"I think people felt that the plane (incident) and the arms sale (to Taiwan) could pass (without lasting harm), but saying that you're going to defend Taiwan is a huge change in policy, and strikes at the fundamental basis of our relationship," according to Lardy.
As for China itself, there is little question among analysts here that the administration's actions -- whether deliberate or negligent -- of the past several weeks are certain to have bolstered forces in China, which is now entering a critical succession period, that favor a more confrontational policy with the United States.
May 9, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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