Sino-US relations, an integral part of world relations, have undergone great ordeals during this first year of the 21st century. However, the ups and downs in their bilateral ties have not deterred them from plodding along in their attempts to resolve disputes and reach a better mutual understanding.
The development of Sino-US relations this past year can be divided into three phases on the basis of two major events that attracted worldwide attention-the mid-air collision of a Chinese fighter with a US Navy spy plane on April 1 and the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The first phase began when US President George W. Bush assumed office in January 20, and ended when the mid-air collision occurred. The highlight of the period was Chinese Vice-Premier Qian Qichen’s visit to the United States in late March, the highest-level official visit by a Chinese leader during the Bush Administration.
After coming into power, Bush defied his predecessor’s target of building a “strategic partnership” with China, and redefined China as the “strategic competitive rival” of the United States.
Bush deliberately weakened relations to a level inferior to those with his alliances in Europe and Asia. For instance, after assuming office, Bush made immediate telephone calls to leaders of a dozen countries, with the exception of the Chinese leader, whom he deliberately excluded. His coldness toward China extended to the order in which he arranged US visits for leaders of NATO member allies—Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK)—before China for Qian. Overall, the Bush Administration altered Bill Clinton’s China policy, and did whatever it could to lower China’s diplomatic status on its schedule during that period.
However, as Dr. Harry Harding, a well-known US expert on China, pointed out, the Bush Administration’s “disregard for China” policy cannot continue, as China is a large influential nation, and US-China relations are among the most important bilateral ties in the world. Many political, business and social figures, including those Republicans, appealed to the Bush Administration to define US-China relations, and promote their sound development. President Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin therefore wrote letters to each other, and reached some consensus on the development of bilateral ties. Between March 18 and 24, Qian visited the United States, and both sides explored ways to build a new framework for the development of stronger Sino-American ties.
Qian met President Bush, Vice-President Richard Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, with whom he exchanged views on Sino-American relations, as well as important regional and international issues. Qian’s visit made positive and constructive achievements, as Bush was more articulate about US-China relations. He first admitted that the United States and China, as two large nations, must handle bilateral relations from a strategic and long-term perspective, and that their bilateral ties should be “constructive.” Bush then accepted Jiang’s invitation to meet at the APEC Summit Meeting to be held in Shanghai in October. Qian’s US visit laid the groundwork for the development of strong bilateral ties.
However, a tragic air collision took place on April 1, just as the bilateral ties had begun to warm up—a US spy plane rammed into a Chinese fighter, causing it to crash into the South China Sea, killing the pilot. The US EP-3 electronic reconnaissance plane, together with its 22 crew members, then entered into Chinese airspace without permission and landed on south China’s Hainan island. The incident immediately brought China and the United States to the second phase of their bilateral ties, when the two nations confronted each other, but also compromised.
Bilateral ties were frayed as far as security measures were concerned, to the same extent as during the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in May 1999. The Chinese Government reacted in a restrained manner; and the key US Government figures assumed a rather rational manner. In a short period, both sides began dialogues to resolve the conflict arising from the incident.
After the incident, the US right-wing Republicans launched verbal attacks on China concerning Taiwan, human rights and nuclear-proliferation issues. Some US mainstream media ran a series of articles and interviews, stating that the incident was an insult to the United States, and demanding to take revenge on China. In addition, many conservative senators showed up on television programs, demanding the US Congress to support the sale of advanced arms to Taiwan, withdraw its support for China’s WTO entry, cancel the permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status to China in this year’s annual discussion, and object to China’s bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
Under domestic political pressure, the Bush Administration adopted a hard-line policy toward China.
Bush declared that the United States would try its best to facilitate Taiwan’s self-defense, if China’s mainland attacked Taiwan through military means. The quality and quantity of US arms sales to Taiwan hit a record high, and the Bush Administration permitted Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian’s multiple transits and meeting with some US senators and politicians. In addition, it allowed Lee Teng-hui, the ex-leader of Taiwan, to visit the United States.
Regarding human rights, the Bush Administration put forward an anti-China motion at this year’s session of the UN Commission on Human Rights shortly after the air collision incident, denouncing China’s religion policy as well as its ban of the Falun Gong cult and entry of legal procedure toward several overseas Chinese who had violated the Chinese law. The Bush Administration also appointed a “special coordinator for Tibet issues,” raising his rank from Assistant Secretary of State to Deputy Secretary of State. Besides, Bush approved the Dalai Lama’s US visit, even going so far as to receive him at the White House.
On the issue of security, US Department of Defense began shifting the US military strategic focus from Europe to Asia, thus demonstrating its tougher and even antagonistic attitude toward China. The Bush Administration insisted on the National Missile Defense (NMD) system, and tried to enlist Taiwan into the program. Immediately after China allowed all the US crewmembers, involved in the April air collision, to leave China, the United States resumed military reconnaissance activities near the Chinese border, and the US Department of Defense actually discontinued its contact with the Chinese side in the field of military security on the pretext of “reevaluating the military exchange program with China.”
Although the United States assumed a hostile and high-handed China policy after the April 1 air collision incident, the Chinese Government took the entire situation into consideration, insisting on defending China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, while exploring rational ways to settle the dispute. After the United States “apologized” on April 12, China decided to let the US crewmembers leave China, and both sides reached an agreement on the repatriation of the US spy plane in late May.
In July, Sino-American ties returned to their status before the air collision incident. On July 3, the US spy plane at Lingshui Airfield in Hainan was dismantled and carried back to the United States by a commercial cargo aircraft. Two days later, Chinese President Jiang Zemin had telephone conversation with Bush at the latter’s request, discussing bilateral relations and other issues relevant to both sides. On July 19, the US House of Representatives approved the extension of China’s PNTR status for one more year, resulting in votes of 259 versus 169. Between July 28 and 29, US Secretary of State Colin Powell visited China and met with Chinese leaders, with whom reaching a consensus on four issues, namely, holding the 14th Sino-US Joint Economic Committee (JEC) meeting, Sino-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) meeting and the special meeting of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), and resuming dialogue on human rights between the two governments.
Just like the weather, bilateral relations have warmed up since late July, when Jiang Zemin met with visiting Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and some US media and business delegations. Meanwhile, both countries signed an agreement in Beijing on trade cooperation framework and four environmental protection agreements funded by US Trade and Development Agency (TDA).
The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. shocked the world on September 11, not only bringing great casualties and losses and exacerbating the economic recession in the United States, but also forcing the US Government to readjust its global security strategy and relations with large nations, thus providing a new opportunity to improve Sino-US relations. The September 11 tragedy ushered in the third phase of bilateral ties.
In the wake of the events, both nations strengthened cooperation in anti-terrorism and other issues involving international security, thus qualifying their bilateral relations as “constructive cooperative relations.” The goal of their bilateral ties is to increase common ground and seek more common interests in security and politics, strengthen mutual economic cooperation and promote common development and prosperity, and resolve differences through dialogue.
The Chinese Government responded promptly to the September 11 attacks on the United States, condemning terrorism, and actively supporting UN anti-terrorism measures. On September 20 and 21, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan visited the United States, expressing willingness to enhance dialogue and cooperation with the United States concerning this issue. The governments of both countries then held expert negotiations on anti-terrorism and other security issues in Washington and Beijing.
On October 19, President Jiang Zemin and his US counterpart met for the first time at the Ninth APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Shanghai, where they exchanged views on bilateral ties, anti-terrorism and the maintenance of world peace and stability.
President Bush said at the meeting that he considers China a friend of his country, and that the United States will handle the differences between them based on the principle of mutual respect and frankness. Bush stated that his administration made major revisions in attitude toward both countries as “strategic competitive rivals” during his election and early days of presidency, and has since adopted a more pragmatic, rational and active stance in its China policy.
At the same meeting, President Jiang advocated the establishment of a “high-level strategic dialogue mechanism” that would encourage the presidents of both countries to exchange ideas and communicate on important issues in a timely manner, either directly or through their representatives, adding that China and the United States can build a “long- or medium-term anti-terrorism cooperative mechanism.”
If the leaders’ meeting at the 1993 Seattle APEC meeting broke sanctions the United States imposed upon China on the ground of the Chinese efforts to calm down riots that hit the country in 1989, and started contact between the United States and China since the end of the Cold War, this year’s Shanghai summit talks would lead to relatively steady and predictable China-US relations after the change in the approach of the Bush Administration. A symbol of the progress made through contact between China and the first post-Cold War US Republican government, the Shanghai summit has paved the way for the sound development of bilateral ties in the new century.
In spite of the global economic slump, China’s economy continues to grow rapidly. Its other achievements this year, such as its recent admission to the WTO as a formal member and its victory in July of the 2008 Olympic bid, indicate a bright future for the economic cooperation between China and the United States, which will definitely stimulate the all-round development of their bilateral relations.
Although Sino-US relations have apparently improved in late 2001, especially since the September 11 events, other points of conflict affecting the bilateral ties remain, including the Taiwan issue, as well as issues of human rights and security, and anti-China forces in the United States would never give up their attempts to further weaken Sino-US relations. The Bush Administration may face new challenges during its contact with China. However, as long as both sides abide by the three Sino-US joint communiques, and agree to disagree, bilateral relations will develop soundly and steadily, which will surely benefit the people of both countries and the progress and peace of the entire human race.
(Beijing Review December 24, 2001)