Current US-China Relations
Henry C.K. Liu

Part I: A Lame Duck-Greenhorn Dance

This article appeared in AToL on June 22, 2006
The Lame Duck
The world’s sole superpower is currently led by a prematurely lame-duck president with an approval rating in the low 30% range going into mid-term Congressional elections in the second and final term of his administration. Political columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote on May 8, 2006 in The New York Times: “To anyone who doubts the stakes for the White House in this year's midterm Congressional elections, consider that Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the Democrat who would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if his party recaptured the House, has called for an inquiry into the possible impeachment [of the president].”

Even President George W Bush’s own Republican Party elders are reported to have advised him to dump his law-breaking neo-conservative Vice President and his overreachingly hawkish Secretary of Defense and to replenish the entire burn-out White House staff to try to preserve a Republican congressional majority next November and to resurrect diminishing chances of another Republican presidency in 2008.

Having gained the White House by the grace of a politicized Supreme Court, Bush’s first term was defined by his god-sent mission of faith-based War on Terrorism in reaction to terrorist attacks nine months into office and gave him an instant war-leader, if not war-hero aura that swept him into a second term against an ineffective opponent. The Battle of Iraq, the second campaign of the open-ended holy War on Terrorism after Afghanistan, has been won with “catastrophic success” but the ensuing peace is being lost equally catastrophically. The continuing quagmire in the conquered nation after three years of undermanned occupation is such a catastrophic failure that it has reduced the commander-in-chief of the occupation forces to a leader with few allies around the world and a prematurely lame-duck president at home.

Terrorists and Terrorism

Terrorist attacks are specific acts by specific terrorists while terrorism is a broad abstract mental fanaticism with no specific pre-identifiable battleground or combatants until after a terrorist act has been committed. All suicide bombers are one-act perpetrators that defy preemptive restraint. Most of them do not know themselves when they will cross the line from mental agitation to suicidal action, or what and where targets would be selected.  The very definition of terrorism is nonspecific, multifaceted and controversial. Different governments define terrorism differently, and more importantly, terrorist groups are identifiable only with varying pejorative standards. Terrorism to some is liberation theology for others. Terrorists to some are heroic freedom fighters to others. Opposition to British rule over the American colonies began with terrorist attacks.

Improvised explosive devices (IED) used by insurgents in asymmetrical warfare are as legitimate as remote-controlled cruise missiles in conventional warfare. In one respect, the US War on Terrorism is officially an undeclared war within the context of the US constitution while the Islamic jihad, even a jihad by the sword, when declared by a recognized cleric is a legitimate holy war, a precept of Divine institution. Webster’s Dictionary defines terrorism as “1) the act of terrorizing, 2) a system of government that seeks to rule by intimidation and 3) unlawful acts of violence committed in an organized attempt to overthrow a government.” A terrorist is one who adopts or supports a policy of terrorism with action. State terrorism is frequently the midwife of insurgent terrorism.

A war on specific terrorists is arguably fightable by military means provided sufficient resources, mostly manpower, are committed, and the price of escalation is accepted. But a war on terrorism is an all-inclusive conceptual undertaking that even a superpower does not possess adequate resources to conduct, particularly if the fountain head of such superpower is the very flawed policies that force-feed terrorism. A War on Terrorism is a conflict without clear terms of engagement except that the more is won on the battlefield the more is lost in the hearts and minds of the target population.  In a May 25, 2006 Washington press conference held jointly with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush openly admitted a good three years after having declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq with the end of "major combat operations” that his macho “bring’em on” remark in reference to Iraqi insurgents “sent the wrong signal to people.” Just as the Vietnam War deformed US foreign policy of global anti-Communism and paralyzed President Johnson’s domestic policies of Great Society by robbing him of international endorsement and domestic political support, Bush’s War on Iraq has consumed the hallowed promise of his missionary presidency both at home and abroad and provided visible evidence of slow corrosive defeat in his War on Terrorism.

The Greenhorn

On the other side of the globe, and the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, the world’s most populous nation and fastest growing economy is led by a political greenhorn, at least by traditional Chinese standards. President Hu Jintao is a model alumnus of the Party School of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), nurtured by a process carefully designed to ensure an orderly generational transition of the central leadership to produce a catholic and versatile heir-apparent acceptable to a wide range of ideological factions within the world’s largest and arguably the most complex political party. Learning lessons from the damaging experience of the Cultural Revolution in which the winner-takes-all struggle for the correct ideological line ended with unimaginable chaos and violence that threatened the very future of the Party, the CCP has since adopted ways and means to smooth out the leadership transition process and to reach orderly resolutions of inevitable ideological and material conflicts in a complex socio-economic-political system that leave room for constructive disagreement and operational compromise. In many ways the CPC as currently constituted is a functioning representative democracy within the context of socialist politics.

Hu Jintao became general secretary of the CPC Central Committee in 2002 and was elected president of the People’s Republic of China on March 15, 2003. In September 2004, he assumed the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. At the time the US-China summit was originally scheduled for spring of 2005, Hu had officially held full rein of leadership of China for less than a year at a time when the nation was at a crossroad in the deliberation on correct ideological evolution and appropriate future policies.

After more than two decades of headlong rush to transform China from an autarkic centrally-planned economy into a limited open market economy, Hu is now leading a nation in the midst of fateful debates about the most effective and balanced route toward a modern harmonious socialist society. Autarky has never been voluntary Chinese policy under socialism but rather an externally-imposed sanction of the Cold War. China’s shift towards market economy in the last two-and-a-half decades had not been taken in isolation from world trends. When Deng Xiaoping introduced the “open/reform” policies in 1979, towards the end of the Cold War, it was a rational response to a world infatuated with the extravagant promises of neo-liberal free trade. A quarter of a century later, while such open/reform policies have achieved spectacular results in bringing China forward into a modern interdependent world, the glaring resultant imbalances, such as excessive dependence on export, worsening income disparity, regional development gaps, rampant official corruption, serious environmental crisis and near-total collapse of the social service network and safety net, etc. are raising calls for re-thinking the wisdom of falling for the empty promises of neo-liberal globalization.

There is no disagreement among the youth who are destined to shoulder the continuing task of national reconstruction toward economic prosperity and cultural renaissance on the need for further opening/reform.  The dispute is on the correct definition and path of opening/reform: open to neo-colonialism and reform towards social inequality and moral decay; or open to assuming a legitimate place as a strong and peaceful nation in a world order of free sovereign nations of equality and reform toward creative and scientific socialist construction based on equality, justice and freedom for all.

The Perfunctory Summit

This was the inauspicious backdrop against which the 2006 US-China summit was held.  Neither leader was in a position to bring to the summit new positions to resolve a range of immediate and developing friction, or the bold leadership necessary to ease emerging long-term contradictions between a declining superpower and a rising regional giant with fundamentally opposing ideologies.  Already conveniently postponed once by the Katrina hurricane crisis in 2005 to mark much-needed time with which to resolve a diplomatic stalemate dead in the water, the resurrected summit in April 2006 still turned out to be a poorly-staged non-event between an unpopular US leader in his final term of office and a Chinese leader who is presiding over uncertain outcomes from fundamental policy debates at home.  Neither leader carried the clear mandate necessary for the bold leadership needed for a path-breaking summit of long-range consequences, nor did either enjoy the policy flexibility for achieving fruitful diplomatic breakthroughs.

To appease pervasive US hostility towards communism, China is made to feel the need to pretend it has abandoned the allegedly evil ideology, an artificial, self-defeating posture in view of modern Chinese history.  US policy aims to channel China through “peaceful evolution” toward the disastrous path of the former Soviet Union, to implode toward neo-liberal capitalism open the country again to neo-colonialism along the model of post-war Japan and Germany as subservient allies in a Pax Americana. On the other hand, China has been following a naive foreign policy toward the US that is based of fantasized US good will and fundamental friendship temporarily obscured by misunderstanding. The reality is that those in the US policy establishment who are realists on China do not expect to see communism receding and thus any rapprochement between China and the US cannot be fundamental, only based on temporary expediency, such as the current need to cooperate on the US War on Terrorism. The fact is that communism will continue to evolve as a political institution, but those waiting for communism to collapse in China will have to wait for a long time, perhaps even forever.

Thus while the War on Terrorism is a distraction, the US continues to see China as its major threat and enemy. Those in Chinese policy circles who deny this basic fact will pay a high price for their fantasy.  An appeasement policy toward belligerent US moral imperialism, especially on the issue of interference in China’s internal affair, most glaring in the question of Taiwan on the pretext of enhancing democracy, will only prevent fundamental improvement of relations between the two countries.  The best that can be hoped for is for the fundamental antagonism to be managed into a peaceful competition to avoid open military conflict. Peace in Asia presupposes US preparedness to live in peace with a Communist China and cessation of US interference in the internal affairs of other nations through moral imperialism.

Intense negotiation on the official categorization and diplomatic protocol details of the summit dragged on until the last minute over whether it was a state visit to seal diplomatic breakthroughs or a working meeting to address intractable conflicts, with both parties more concerned with public relations impact on domestic politics than achieving real progress on improving bilateral relations.  Exhaustive diplomatic efforts were expanded on mundane protocol issues that have little long-range consequences. The summit was ensnared in short-term problems and issues that defy solution unless long-range visions are clarified as controlling factors. Alas, such long-range visions were sadly missing in the publicly-reported official discussions, the absence of which was camouflage by the usual utterances of diplomatic platitudes to create an image of a successful summit out of a perfunctory one.

While both leaders publicly touted the need for broad convergence in strategic cooperation based on select operational commonality in national interests, the two nations remain far apart on specific issues as well as broad world views and ideology.  The US asserts that the enlargement of democracy is the fundamental basis of its foreign policy. China also proclaims its desire for enhancing democracy. Yet the two nations do not agree on what democracy means in different nations and under different historical conditions and socio-cultural contexts. US culture celebrates extreme individualism while Chinese culture puts priority on Confucian hierarchal social harmony. The US promotes free trade and open markets as long as they are other nation’s markets. Free trade for the US is not freedom to trade, but only trade not in conflict with US policy of unilateral sanctions. China is also committed to free trade but in practice has been engaged only in selling cheap labor and environmental pollution for dollars that cannot be used at home, or to buy high-technology that the US forbids all countries to sell to China even for dollars, or to buy US assets that are considered strategic. And the two nations are racing headlong into confrontational disagreement on the terms of fair bilateral and global trade. Rising economic nationalism is changing the domestic politics of both nations, with opposition to job loss through outsourcing and escalating trade deficits on the US scene, and opposition to foreign control of Chinese enterprises and hegemonic US market power on the Chinese side. Fundamentally, China, as many other nations also, is beginning to see US definition of free trade as a pretext to interfere with the economic sovereign authority of other nations. Geopolitically, the Chinese model is being received in the Third World as an alternative path to development from the discredited US neo-liberal trade system. The US is trying to convince China to become a belated “stakeholder” in the Pax Americana, a declining system in which China, as with all developing nations, holds a pitifully small and underprivileged stake. China is beginning to enjoy increasing popularity among the nations of the world while the US image has been in steady and rapid decline in recent years. The one area in which China had problem with other nations is in its export trade sector, a sector in which the US has been most influential in shaping and where foreign capital dominates.


Beside differences in trade and economic relations, a range of national security issues present themselves as both concerns and opportunities to the leadership of both the US and China. Among them the issue of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction sits on top of the pyramid.

Every nation supports the principle of nonproliferation, but the US definition of the nonproliferation regime is fatally flawed. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization that is part of the United Nations system, evoked a vivid image when he said that for an nuclear superpower with tens of thousands of warheads and the unimpeded means to deliver them to all corners of the earth to tell other nations not to develop nuclear weapons “is like dangling a lit cigarette from your mouth while telling everybody else to stop smoking.”  World nuclear nonproliferation must start with world nuclear disarmament by the nations that already have nuclear weapons taking concrete steps toward getting rid of them. Nonproliferation requires a roll-back toward disarmament as a first step. Despite post-Cold War reduction, the US and Russia together still hold some 20,000 nuclear warheads in their arsenals, and the US is working on developing new weapons. There is already a mounting surplus of enriched uranium and plutonium around the world for military purposes, yet the “weapons countries” continue to produce more.

China’s alleged military buildup is cited by the US as a justification for US military spending. Yet China’s air force does not have a single long-range bomber, and according to a story in Time in June1999, its entire nuclear arsenal “packs about as much explosive power as what the US stuffs into one Trident submarine.” Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in January 2005 in Foreign Policy: “Forty years after acquiring nuclear-weapons technology, China has just 24 ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States. Even beyond the realm of strategic warfare, a country must have the capacity to attain its political objectives before it will engage in limited war. It is hard to envisage how China could promote its objectives when it is acutely vulnerable to a blockade and isolation enforced by the United States. In a conflict, Chinese maritime trade would stop entirely. The flow of oil would cease, and the Chinese economy would be paralyzed.”  This is the basis of China’s bending backward to avoid a military confrontation with the US, the danger for which comes entirely from US preemptive strategy.

ElBaradei characterizes the US position on nonproliferation as hypocritical and the alternative is seeing “20 or 30 countries with nuclear weapons. That would be the beginning of the end [of non-proliferation].” Backing non-nuclear-weapon nations into a defenseless corner, reinforcing their perceptions of international injustice and national humiliation, is a formula, he said, for seeing more, not less, nuclear proliferation. One might add that preemptive strikes serve only to accelerate the pace and strengthen the rationalization for non-nuclear nations to embark on nuclear armament. Yet David Sanger, White House correspondent for the New York Times reported on June 16 from Crawford, Texas, the president’s home ranch, that Bush “directed his top national security aides to make a doctrine of pre-emptive action against states and terrorist groups trying to develop weapons of mass destruction into the foundation of a new national security strategy.”

After waging a war to remove non-existent weapons of mass destruction from Iraq, the US continues to try to get other nuclear nations to pressure North Korea and Iran to cease and desist with their nuclear weapons programs. Learning from the fate of Iraq, North Korea has discovered that it commands more leverage in dealing with the US by claiming to already possess nuclear weapons than to deny nuclear capability to ward off any threat of pre-emptive attacks. North Korea has said it needs to develop nuclear weapons to prevent a possible US invasion. Washington denies intentions of attacking the communist nation in one breath while threatens with the use of force in the next. Nuclear experts believe North Korea has enough radioactive material to make at least half-a-dozen bombs. North Korean negotiators claim its country already has operational atomic weapons, but no tests have yet been detected to confirm its arsenal.

Many nonproliferation specialists feel the US should consider offering the all non-nuclear weapon countries assurance against foreign attacks, both conventional and nuclear, and provide them with the fuels to develop the nuclear power plants they need for peaceful economic development, rather than continuing to pursue the economic and military sanctions that have been in place against these nuclear capable countries for decades with no deterrent effect.  Furthermore there is an urgent need to deescalate the US penchant for military solutions in the world security regime. Security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states from the nuclear-weapon states are a sine qua non requirement for nonproliferation. Non-nuclear-weapon nations are not blind to the fact only nations without nuclear retaliatory capabilities have been attacked via conventional warfare by nuclear-weapon nations since the beginning of the nuclear age. As for the nuclear threat, if Japan had the atomic bomb in 1945, not one atomic bomb would have been dropped on its soil, let alone two. The US continues to refuse to subscribe to the “no first use” principle, wearing the dubious honor of being the only nation in history that has used nuclear weapons in war, and not just once for effect but twice for emphasis.

Arms Control vs Disarmament

Arms control is the deadly enemy of disarmament.  When disarmament is accepted as unachievable utopia, arms control becomes the compromise solution. But arms control implies that disarmament is unnecessary since arms control presents itself as a regime that makes armament safe and benign. The UN Conference on Disarmament (UNCD), established in 1979 as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community, was a result of the first Special Session on Disarmament of the United Nations General Assembly held in 1978. The terms of reference of the UNCD include practically all multilateral arms control and disarmament problems.

Currently the UNCD focuses on: cessation of the nuclear arms race; nuclear disarmament; prevention of nuclear war; prevention of an arms race in outer space; effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons; new types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons including radiological weapons; and a comprehensive program of disarmament and transparency in armaments. After almost three decades, disarmament is still an impossible dream.

US Ambassador Eric Javits, speaking at the plenary session of the 66-member UNCD Geneva, Switzerland, which met from January 21 to March 29, 2002, said the US places international peace and security as a primary goal, but national security is also necessary and essential, as if the two goals were mutually exclusive. Javits said on February 7, 2002 that in order for any arms control treaty to be effective, the security of all states -- termed mutual advantage -- is vital.

The Effect of September 11 Attacks

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington had profound effects on US national psyche with fundamental political repercussions on foreign and domestic policy formulation.  On domestic policy, the US opts to sharply curtail its century-old tradition of civil liberty and personal privacy in the name of homeland security. The admirable US tradition of protecting the innocent at the risk of not convicting the guilty has been largely abandoned. The norm now is to err on the side of homeland security. Ethnic profiling has been revived with a vengeance. On foreign policy, hijacked by faith-based neo-conservative extremists, the US has found a new enemy in the form of Islamic extremism to replace its old communist nemeses of the Cold War: namely the USSR and China.

History may eventually cite the September 11 events as a turning point in a shift in global geopolitical order with unprecedented patterns of cooperation among previously antagonistic governments. This is because the US is no longer a safe haven exempt from foreign attack.  (See: Superpower Vulnerability - Thus the 2002 UNCD was of significance because it was the first occasion in which the US presented its post-9:11 posture on disarmament as a nation under siege.

On November 14, merely a month after the terrorist attacks, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement in which they declared that the US and Russia “have overcome the legacy of the Cold War,” adding that “neither country regards the other as an enemy or threat.” The two Presidents of the world’s two major nuclear powers cited their joint responsibility to contribute to international security, and went on to say that the US and Russia “are determined to work together, and with other nations and international organizations, including the United Nations, to promote security, economic well-being, and a peaceful, prosperous, free world.”  Although the word terrorism was not mentioned, the intention was clear that anti-terrorism, albeit the official definition of which is not congruent in the mind of each leader, was the motivating factor behind the new spirit of co-existence.

Yet on December 13, another month later, President Bush announced that the US would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, pursuant to its provisions that permit withdrawal after six months notice. This was a complete reversal of nuclear deterrence scholastics that had evolved in the Cold War that successfully prevent a nuclear holocaust though five decades of superpower hostility.  The idea that both superpowers agreed not to undertake defensive measures to neutralize any advantage of a first strike by exposing itself to certain vulnerability to a counter strike was a key factor in stabilizing nuclear escalation.  In withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, the US now claims it knows with certainty that some States, including a number that have sponsored terrorist attacks in the past, are investing heavily to acquire ballistic missiles that could conceivably be used against the US and its Allies and protectorates, and this development is compounded by the fact that many of these same States, not content just to acquire missiles, are also seeking to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Why should terrorists resort to ICBMs [Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles] that are costly and difficult to launch when a small bottle of biological agent can do more damage at a tiny fraction of the cost? A recent NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] study shows that the costs of conventional weapons ($2,000), nuclear armaments ($800), and chemical agents ($600) would far outstrip the bargain basement price of biological weapons ($1) to produce 50% casualties per square-kilometer (prices at 1969 dollars). Terrorism can only be fought with the removal of injustice, not by anti-ballistic missiles and smart bombs. It is a straw-man argument to assert the principle of refusal to yield to terrorist demands. It is a suicidal policy to refuse to negotiate with terrorists until terrorism stops, for the political aim of all terrorism is to force the otherwise powerful opponent to address the terrorists' grievances by starting new negotiations under new terms. The solution lies in denying terrorism any stake in destruction and increasing its stake in dialogue. This is done with an inclusive economy and a just world order in which it would be clear that terrorist destruction of any part of the world would simply impoverish all, including those whom terrorists try to help. The U.S. can increase its own security and the security of the world by adopting foreign and trade policies more in tune with its professed value of peace and justice for all, in other words, by shunning unilateralism and hegemonic policies. The Al Qaeda, a hydra-headed cell-like structure, can be defeated only by enlisting the support of the entire international community. That sympathetic support was spontaneously extended by many after 9-11, but Bush frittered it away with his unilateral killing rampage on innocent civilians in the name of collateral damage.

When it entered office before 9:11, the Bush administration was antagonistic about cooperative relations with China and North Korea, and instead promised a fundamental reorientation of US security policy from the Cold War era to explore a new close partnership with India which had been an ally of the USSR, and showed little enthusiasm toward multilateral regional organizations such as APEC and Asean Regional Forum (ARF). In his first State of the Union address in 2002, Bush was forced to declare, after labeling Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an Axis of Evil: “We must prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world.”  He added further that “In this moment of opportunity, a common danger is erasing old rivalries. America is working with Russia, China, and India in ways we never have before to achieve peace and prosperity.” This was a drastic policy shift. Time Magazine reported in June 2002 that Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and counterterrorism deputy Richard Clarke in presenting their transition report to Condoleezza Rice and her staff in the first week of January 2001 had presented al-Qaeda as the greatest threat facing the US as Clinton left office. Rice thought otherwise and identified China as the greatest threat. Bush subsequent referred to China as a strategic competitor, rather than a strategic partner as the outgoing Clinton Administration had done.  Events have proved Burger to be right.

Withdrawal from the ABM Treaty permits the US to develop new means of shielding the US against missile attacks which enhances temptation for the US to consider first strikes against other nuclear nations. The US claims it needs to update “means of dissuasion” to reduce the possibility that missiles will be used by hostile nations as tools of coercion and aggression against it, more than just against a stray missile or accidental launch.  Such “means of dissuasion” are also an essential element of a strategy to discourage potential adversaries from seeking to acquire or use weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles -- by removing the assured possibility that such weapons would have military utility. With US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the deterrence doctrine based on Massive Assured Destruction (MAD) became history, and the notion of a winnable nuclear war became US policy.

In mid-December, a month after the 9:11 attacks, technical specialists from the US met their Chinese counterparts to explain that US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty was not aimed at China, notwithstanding earlier anti-China rhetoric that accompanied the withdrawal deliberations. The US wanted now to discuss the possible restart of a broad strategic dialogue with China in the context of new US strategic policy based on the War on Terrorism. The US further explored strategic issues and appropriate methods for enhancing mutual understanding and confidence in the context of increasingly cooperative relations between the US and China when President Bush visited Beijing at the invitation of then Chinese President Jiang Zemin on February 21, 2002, exactly 30 years to the date of President Richard M. Nixon’s historic visit to China to exploit geopolitical opportunities arising from the Chinese–Soviet split. Unfortunately, the Bush visit in 2002 did not yield any breakthroughs of historical significance despite US awareness of the need for Chinese cooperation on its War on Terrorism. In some ways, such on the issue of US interference in Chinese internal affairs over the problem of Taiwan, the Bush visit represented reversals from the Nixon/Kissinger commitments made three decades earlier to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai on US withdrawal from Taiwan. Until those commitments are meticulously honored, US-China relations remain devoid of a solid foundation.

June 19, 2006

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