After U.S. strikes, China shows unusual restraint

Beijing sees opportunity to improve troubled ties between two nations

November 08, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - When the United States takes military action against another country, China is often one of Washington's most vocal critics, calling the United States an international bully and complaining about what it calls American "hegemonism."

Not this time.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, leaders in Beijing have firmly backed the global effort against terrorism and remained mostly silent about the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, with which China shares a short, mountainous border.

"Military strikes on terrorism should be targeted at specific objectives, so as to avoid hurting innocent civilians," the Foreign Ministry has said in a short, mild statement. "China hopes that peace can be restored as soon as possible."

China's uncharacteristic restraint hinges in part on the opportunities the attacks have created for improving troubled relations between the two nations, Chinese analysts say. It also reflects China's recognition of its own vulnerabilities as a rapidly developing country facing a Muslim separatist movement in its far northwest.

Since the attacks on New York and Washington, China has pledged support for a United Nations-backed effort against terrorism and offered to provide the United States with intelligence on Afghanistan.

But probably most helpful to Washington, Beijing has refrained from the usual criticism.

China's quiet response illustrates how much the nation has changed since the days of Mao Tse-tung, when China was a revolutionary state isolated from most of the rest of the world. Some Chinese leaders of that time viewed international terrorism as a legitimate form of protest by poor countries against rich, capitalist ones.

Today, China has a rapidly developing economy that runs in part on the market forces Mao deplored. The country's success depends on solid relations with the world's wealthiest nations, foremost the United States.

No longer desperately poor, China now has more to lose. The nation boasts strikingly modern cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, with skyscrapers and other infrastructure that could serve as potential terrorist targets.

"If you don't have an oil pipeline, they can't attack it," says Yan Xuetong of the Institute of International Studies at Beijing's Qinghua University. "I think China's policy against terrorism will become more firm because our economic achievements will make China more vulnerable to such an attack."

In exchange for what amounts to tacit support for Washington, Beijing is looking to improve a rocky Sino--U.S. relationship that is essential to China's plans to develop its economy. Relations, never easy between the two countries, have gone through a particularly volatile cycle in recent years. The NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 and the standoff over a U.S. spy plane on China's Hainan island this year engendered mutual bitterness and distrust.

Before Sept. 11, the U.S. military was focusing on the Pacific, where a rising China with growing ambitions could present a challenge to U.S. dominance. Since the attacks, concerns about security in Asia and the oft-cited "China Threat" have been overwhelmed by worries about security at home.

In light of China's support, Beijing hopes Washington may take a slightly softer line on Taiwan, the democratic island that President Bush pledged the United States would defend in case of Chinese attack. Since rival Nationalist troops fled to Taiwan more than a half-century ago, China has viewed the island as a renegade province and threatened to take it back by force if necessary.

That the United States would give much on such a core interest may be wishful thinking.

A senior Taiwanese official tried to halt such speculation last month, saying American officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, had pledged not to let Chinese backing for an anti-terrorism campaign affect U.S. support. The Pentagon announced in late October its plans to sell 40 anti-tank missiles to the island, continuing the practice of selling arms to Taiwan - a policy that infuriates Beijing.

Chinese analysts, though, say the United States will eventually need to find some way to acknowledge China's support to help counter conservative critics of the government who favor a tougher line against the United States

"The United States should make the Chinese people and the Chinese government think they will receive some rewards," said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at People's University in Beijing. "If you don't gives this, the [conservative] forces will become stronger, and moderates will decline."

One thing that could draw the United States and China a bit closer is a new, shared enemy: Muslim extremists.

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