China unnerved with war, West so close to its door

October 23, 2001|By Svante E. Cornell and Niklas SwanstrM-vm

WASHINGTON - China's tacit but limited support for the U.S.-announced war on terrorism has earned it widespread respect in the United States.

But China's stance is by no means decidedly pro-American. Beijing shares some of the American objectives, but, on a deeper level, it is increasingly disturbed by what it views as a U.S. military presence in its backyard.

The hunt for Osama bin Laden and the war in Afghanistan has brought a regional conflict to China's neighborhood that it would rather not have. Basically, China has the United States next door again, just as it did during the wars in Vietnam and Korea.

China has been worried for a long time that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as well as bin Laden's presence there, would inspire Muslim Uighur separatists in its northwestern Xinjiang province to assume a more militant Islamic posture; Uighurs have been trained in bin Laden's camps. But, at the same time, China also has been able to find a common language with the Taliban.

Though it never recognized the Taliban government, Beijing encouraged Chinese companies to engage in Afghanistan. As a result, there has been increasingly significant economic cooperation between the Taliban and China.

Despite these positive dynamics, China would not mind seeing bin Laden removed or a more moderate government installed in Afghanistan. And though Beijing may seem to share many of the U.S. goals in Afghanistan, it is hindered by economic, political and domestic considerations to engage militarily in the hunt for terrorists. To believe China will actively participate in combating the Taliban government is, therefore, wishful thinking.

The regional consequences of U.S. actions in Afghanistan could affect China directly.

To deal with terrorist issues in Central Asia, China would prefer to use its own brainchild, the recently created Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia and four Central Asian states, notably Uzbekistan, rather than American troops.

Indeed, China has spent considerable diplomatic efforts to counteract U.S. and Western influence in Central Asia in recent years. Its cooperation with Russia in creating the SCO has largely been based on this joint aim to keep the West, especially the United States, out of Central Asia.

This policy seemed to be successful, until Sept. 11. The equation changed after the terrorist attacks against America because it no longer seemed absurd to imagine U.S. troops in Uzbekistan, a key Central Asian country because of its location, large population and strong military.

China and Russia had until Sept. 11 been successful in bringing Uzbekistan into the fold. Although Uzbekistan had been heavily pro-American, a decrease in U.S. interest in the region during the Clinton administration, coupled with an internal Islamic insurgency, drew Tashkent reluctantly closer to Moscow and Beijing.

The war on terrorism provides an opportunity for Uzbekistan and possibly other Central Asian states to break free of the Sino-Russian axis and improve political and military ties to the United States. That's why the increased U.S. presence runs counter to Chinese interests in the region.

And this is the chief reason why China has been reluctant to more openly support military action in Afghanistan.

China and the United States generally agree about Islamic radicalism, in particular as regards bin Laden. Hence Beijing will support the struggle against terrorism so long as it is compatible with China's internal and regional security. Ideally, China would like the United States to deal swiftly with bin Laden and leave Central Asia.

Given that this is unlikely, the United States should be prepared for increased Chinese intransigence as its military presence in Central Asia extends over time. China's recent decision to extend military aid to Tajikistan is a sign that Beijing will remain engaged in the region, a factor to be considered in formulating any U.S. strategy for Central Asia.

Svante E. Cornell is editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Niklas Swanstrom is project director of the East Asian Project in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research of Uppsala University, Sweden.

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