Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao’s Washington visit May 2 came close to being cancelled over the Taiwan issue. His talks with US President George W. Bush failed to make headway on this or any other contentious problems, such as Chinese military sales to states the Americans regard as rogue and Beijing’s role in the war on global terror. The Chinese vice president’s visit therefore ended with polite smiles and diplomatic platitudes – but little else. Washington and Beijing remained as entrenched as ever in their respective positions on key issues, a consequence that will strongly color the Bush-Putin summit agenda on May 25.
Above all, Chinese anger is rising over America’s growing military relationship with Taiwan.
Early in 2002 Taiwan’s military shopping list presented to the US included four Aegis class guided missile destroyers, four Kidd class destroyers, P-3 anti-submarine warfare aircraft with improved missile and torpedo systems, High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) to counter the PLA’s new S-300 surface to air missile batteries deployed near Taiwan, Joint Direct Attack Missiles (JDAM) and other precision-guided munitions, AIM-120 air-to-air missiles, improved sensor and weapon targeting systems, naval anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, advanced diesel-electric submarines, advanced armor and artillery systems, Apache attack helicopters, sharing of US space-based early warning missile data, and an advanced integrated command, control and intelligence system to enable precision combined arms operations.
In April 2001, the Bush administration approved the sale to Taiwan of up to eight diesel-electric submarines, four Kidd class destroyers, as well as various new missiles, aircraft and helicopters, with the decision on the balance of the weapon requests still pending.
A major focus of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) current ongoing massive modernization, domestic weapons R&D programs, and foreign technology transfers and defense acquisitions is to increase its power projection capabilities to be most likely used in a conflict with Taiwan, and possibly allied nations such as the US, Japan and South Korea.
One-China Policy on Paper
Perhaps the boldest statement Hu made during his American tour was: “If any serious complications arise with the Taiwan question, it would be difficult for China-US relations to move forward, and may even harm existing ties.” Rather less mildly, the Chinese Vice President said: “Selling sophisticated weapons to Taiwan or US-Taiwan official relations are inconsistent with the stated US commitment to a One-China policy…”.
Ironically, Hu’s visit coincides with the 30th anniversary of former US President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to China and the issuance of the Sino-US Shanghai Joint Communique which began the normalization of relations between the two powers, and enshrined the One-China policy. This policy is under challenge by right-wing elements in the US Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush.
Hu was allowed a brief 30-minute meeting with President Bush and a 45-minute session with Vice President Dick Cheney on May 1st (half of each meeting likely being consumed by translation protocols), with Taiwan again at the top of the agenda. As further indication of the coolness of the encounters, the eminent Chinese visitor left the White House without comment to the news media, no joint communiques were issued, and a US press secretary indicated that President Bush “seeks a peaceful resolution of any differences between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan and that we do not wish to see provocation on either side of the Taiwan strait”. Bush also indicated freedom of religion and human rights were major areas of disagreement with China.
Cheney’s discussion with Hu centered on the US war on terrorism and the need for China to curb missile technology exports. Bush’s comment last year that the US would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan has not been retracted or even qualified. Hu left the impression with his Washington audiences that gradual social-economic change would naturally evolve into the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, and the use of force would not be necessary, ignoring actual current PLA force buildups.
In a private meeting with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, the two agreed on vague measures to resume and strengthen the now suspended exchanges between the militaries of each nation. US officials have only rarely entered PLA military establishments, while in the past high-ranking PLA officers have toured many US facilities.
In his meeting with members of the US Congress at Capital Hill, Hu Jintao reaffirmed the official Chinese doctrine towards Taiwan of “peaceful reunification”, and “one country, two systems” (the Hong Kong and Macao model). Again, in the problem area of Congressional accusations of major human rights violations, Hu countered with the soft values of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in each others’ internal affairs.
Before Hu left Washington, the Armed Services Committee of the US House of Representatives passed a provision requiring the US Defense Secretary to improve Taiwan’s military preparedness, including a comprehensive plan for joint military activities within six months. House Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi had attempted to hand Hu four letters from members of Congress that demanded the release of Chinese political prisoners, including those in Tibet, but none of the Chinese delegation would accept the letters.
On March 11, 2002, the US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had made a closed-door speech to the US-Taiwan Business Council in Florida, attended by US and Taiwanese military officials including Taiwan Defence Minister Tang Yiau-ming, on how Taiwanese military forces could be better integrated to counter a PLA ballistic missile build-up across the straits. Mr. Wolfowitz indicated that the previous US policy of permitting defense sales to Taiwan only once per year would be discontinued in favor of continuous sales and emphasized the Bush administration’s commitment “to make available to Taiwan defense articles and services that enable it to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
Hu’s meetings with senior US officials had no apparent effect on current, planned or potential arms transfers to, and active military cooperation with, Taiwan.
Links to “Axis of Evil” States
Chinese intelligence may have also used Hu’s trip as a test of America’s perceived role of China within the US-led global war on terrorism. Following the September 11th attack on New York, Beijing was convinced that the US would cease its vocal criticism of China’s suppression of minority groups such as Islamic extremists in western China, perhaps even providing tacit support for harsh PLA anti-guerilla operations. When US criticisms of perceived human rights violations in China continued – and China was even indirectly linked to the “axis of evil” through its support for North Korea – Chinese strategists became increasingly concerned over the US’s perception of China within the new world order, uncertain whether the US considers China a cooperative friend or an enemy on the order of the former Soviet Union.
China’s relationship with Islamic weapon client states in the Middle East, and even its long-time ally Pakistan, has always been an uneasy one because of its suppression of its own Muslim population and friendly defense technology exchanges with Israel. This relationship was made ultimately palatable by China’s willingness to supply missile and weapons of mass destruction technologies to those willing to pay the price.
In the realm of defense, vague pledges were made in the Washington visit on China’s positive role in anti-terrorism, the tense Korean Peninsula situation, and the non-proliferation of long-range missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. In the past, China has often promised to abide by the restrictions of the Missile technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. During their June 1998 summit in Beijing, President Jiang Zemin had indicated to his then US counterpart Bill Clinton that China would consider fully joining the MTCR and end missile-related sales to Islamic nations such as Pakistan and Iran.
But nothing came of these promises. The profit motive overcame other considerations and the central government claimed that many Chinese defense-related firms were becoming increasingly autonomous. For example, rather than directly selling integrated missile systems or nuclear reactors, Chinese state firms now transfer associated sub-systems and production technologies to client nations (including “rogue” states such as North Korea) under the guise of more innocent types of technical assistance. In many cases, China claims to be transferring dual-use technologies, sub-systems, and technical expertise not explicitly covered by multilateral weapons control regimes. Major Chinese exporting agencies claim to have undertaken such sales with little or no direction from higher policy-coordinating central government bodies such as the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the super armaments ministry, the Commission of Science and Technology Industry for National Defense (COSTIND).
To this day, the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington claim China is giving Iran continued missile and nuclear technology support, despite Beijing’s assurances that such support has ceased. On May 8, a week after the Hu visit to Washington, the Bush administration imposed new sanctions on Chinese (as well as Armenian and Moldovan) companies accused of aiding Iran’s weapons of mass destruction program, in violation of the MTCR.
China has boosted its sales to states that the US considers “rogue” very much to get back at Washington for a series of episodes it regards as inimical: the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the 2002 downing of a Chinese J-8II fighter aircraft after ramming into a US EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft which then proceeded to make an unauthorized landing on Hainan Island (some sources indicate that the US surveillance aircraft was gathering data on the new Chinese nuclear attack and missile launching submarine programs which are being developed in the area), and a multi-billion dollar arms modernization of the Taiwanese military, while strengthening US defense cooperation with an area China maintains is a breakaway province
On his way to Washington, Hu stopped over in Malaysia, Singapore, Honolulu, and New York. In Malaysia, Hu revealed his true bent when he stated in an address to the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute that China opposes strong nations bullying the weak into accepting their vision of the world. Both China and Malaysia have voiced support for the US war on terrorism, but both are anxious about its ramifications. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said: “Malaysia would be happy if China can counterbalance US domination of world politics”.
China has not formally joined any anti-terrorist pact with the US or other ASEAN states, such as the one signed this week between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Hu Jintao ended his inaugural US trip in San Francisco on May 3rd, after touring the Intel Corporation, the largest US microprocessor manufacturer.
Ironically, Silicon Valley is a hotbed of Chinese intelligence activities and the illegal transfer of advanced American information technologies. Sounding more like a senior state bureaucrat than a dynamic politician, the next likely leader of the most populous nation on earth, addressed fellow technocrats on the finer points of innovation and the introduction of advanced technological management techniques to boost productivity.
Recent US intelligence reports have claimed that China is involved in approximately half of all law enforcement cases related to the illegal diversion of technology from the US. Many of these cases, while often having a commercial profit motive, are also connected to intelligence and military technology transfer operations. Chinese students and employees working in foreign firms and government facilities related to advanced technologies are often recruited as intelligence operatives. Geographical areas targeted in the US include Silicon Valley, and other advanced technology cluster regions such as the Pennsylvania-New Jersey biotechnology-pharmaceutical concentration, Detroit's automotive sector, North Carolina's massive “Research Triangle” technology park, and defense research sites in New Mexico.
Is Hu a Paper Hawk?
Beijing’s official position is that Hu Jintao’s diplomatic visit abroad was a resounding success. Some compare Hu to a Chinese version of Vladimir Putin: highly intelligent, quiet and small, but potentially decisive, tough and ruthless. This still remains to be seen.
Hu’s visit to the US was little more than a well-orchestrated public relations exercise with no concrete policy results. The strongest imprint of China’s worldview was not left by Hu in Washington, but by the man he is to replace, President Jiang Zemin, who made no bones about Beijing’s evolving anti-US, anti-unipolar world, policy, during his April 2002 tour of Iran, Nigeria, Tunisia, Germany and Libya.
Related to Beijing’s opposition to a unipolar world, dominated by the United States, are fears of Japanese remilitarization, India’s growing closeness to the US, as well as its long-time ally Pakistan falling under American influence.
Under cover of its war on terrorism, US forces ring China with bases in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Japan and South Korea. PLA strategists see this US encirclement as potentially containing China and cutting off new energy supplies vital for the expanding Chinese economy.
Beijing’s closest ally and arms supplier, Russia, is a mere shell of its former Soviet glory, and is ultimately wary of China’s territorial aspirations in the vast tracts of Siberia. However, despite the current US-Russian rapprochement, including the last cordial Bush-Putin summit of November 2001, no aspect of Sino-Russian defense cooperation has been terminated to date (although this may be a major issue at the next Bush-Putin summit later this month).
China’s long-time ally North Korea has been labeled by the US as a member of the new international “axis of evil”. The hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PLA believe that the US war on terrorism is an excuse to implement a “new imperialism” that will impose a system of Western values (ie. human rights, liberalism and cosmopolitanism) on the entire world. Western intervention of the type enforced in Kosovo and Afghanistan could, in this view, be used to support similar interventions in Chinese provinces with ethnic or political dissidents such as Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, or any area where large religious groups such as the Falun Gong are reportedly persecuted.
In the final analysis, China’s military modernization continues, as does a US strengthening of forces in the Pacific theatre of operations, both possibly earmarked for contingency operations in Taiwan. Hu Jintao has reportedly been a leading figure in military cooperation with Russia, and transferring the best of what is left of the former massive Soviet military-industrial complex to China. Hu is also said to be providing lavish support and resources to modernize the PLA and build a power base within the Chinese military. How the youthful vice president consolidates and eventually uses his power remains to be seen, but few clues were provided during his US trip.