The recent controversy between the U.S. and China over the emergency landing of an American surveillance plane on the island of Hainan has highlighted the strained relations between the two giants in recent years.
The stress really began with the revelation that the Chinese had breached security at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons plant and the fact that the Chinese had funneled money into the Democratic presidential campaign in 1996. Tensions grew even more during the NATO operations in Yugoslavia, when an American aircraft accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy. When Bush was elected president, U.S. - China relations were put on an even more uncertain footing due to the tough stance the Bush administration seemed to be taking regarding China.
Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen visited Washington in March to pressure President Bush not to sell Taiwan advanced military equipment. The issue is so important to Beijing that this was the third high-level visit from the Chinese this year. The details of the April sale have yet to be announced, prompting warnings from Beijing that U.S. - Chinese relations would suffer if certain sophisticated systems were included in the deal. The delays in releasing the EP-3E crew redoubled the uncertainty of what the final decision would be.
The key point of contention is Taiwan's request for four destroyers equipped with the Aegis air-defense and battle-management systems. The Aegis radar system is able to track 100 targets at once and could become a foundational part of an even more advanced missile-defense system. Taiwan has also requested somewhat less sophisticated hardware, such as submarines, missiles, Kidd-class destroyers, sub-hunting aircraft and software upgrades for jet fighters, which could be sold to the Taiwanese without seriously straining relations with the mainland.
U.S. Admiral Dennis Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that although the balance between China and Taiwan is stable for now, the U.S. must "take the actions necessary to maintain that balance." He continued, saying, "We should not have Taiwan define the entire U.S. - Chinese relationship. I don't think military confrontation is inevitable, and I don't think we should act to make it more inevitable."
While the admiral's specific recommendations were not publicized, Virginia Senator John Warner suggested that the sale of Kidd-class destroyers, instead of those of the Aegis class, would not only improve the defense capabilities of the Taiwanese but would also provide an interim equipment training base should the U.S. choose to sell the Aegis system at a later time.
The Chinese have also objected to the sale of Patriot-3 anti-missile systems to Taiwan, which would challenge China's missile threat. To date, China has nearly 300 missiles capable of threatening Taiwan. They have also announced a defense budget increase of nearly 18 percent. It is clear that Beijing has no intention of letting Taiwan slip away.
Meanwhile, Taiwan has reiterated that it has no intention of declaring independence from China, nor will it negotiate a union between the two without substantial democratic reforms in the Chinese government. In the meantime it hopes to maintain a strong deterrent to a potential attack.
Other Issues Between the U.S. and China
Taiwan and the standoff over the EP-3E crew are not the only issues of contention between the U.S. and China. The U.S. has repeatedly condemned Beijing's human rights record, where free speech and freedom of religion are regularly abused. The U.S. State Department's report on human rights violations included the closure or destruction of thousands of unregistered religious institutions, thousands of Falun Gong practitioners incarcerated in mental institutions - about 100 or more dead as the result of torture or mistreatment in custody - and also crackdowns on political dissent and unsanctioned religious groups. Before the EP-3E incident even occurred, the House International Relations Committee voted to pass a resolution protesting China's bid for the 2008 Olympics because of its "abominable" human rights record. The resolution infuriated Beijing, because a similar measure opposing China's bid for the 2000 Olympics contributed to the International Olympic Committee's awarding the games to Australia.
Trying to save its Olympics bid, China formally notified the United Nations that it would abide by a 1966 human rights treaty, with the reservation that it would not allow workers to form independent trade unions. China's deputy ambassador to the United Nations said that ratification of the treaty showed that his country had made strides to improve its human rights record.
American criticism has also come in the wake of the arrest of a five-year-old American boy taken from his parents when his Chinese-born mother was arrested for alleged spying. The boy's parents are legal residents of the United States and the boy was born there. The boy and his father were released after 26 days, but (as of press time) the woman is still being held in an undisclosed location. Some members of the U.S. Congress have proposed bestowing American citizenship upon the couple to counter the Chinese claim that because the woman is a Chinese citizen this is purely a domestic matter.
Relations have been further complicated by recent revelations that the Chinese supplied Iraq with fiber-optic network equipment for air defense in defiance of the U.N. sanctions against Iraq. Also annoying to the U.S. was the opening of a Chinese-made nuclear power plant in Pakistan, a project Americans fear may escalate tensions with India.
Just prior to Vice Premiere Qian's official visit, news of a senior Chinese military officer's defection hit the press. Senior Colonel Xu Junping defected to the United States at the end of December, but his move had been kept secret until word was leaked to Taiwan Intelligence. The timing of the leak may have further soured the vice premiere's meetings with top Bush officials.
For its part, China has joined Russia in condemning the Bush administration for its plan to continue development of a missile defense shield, especially if coverage is extended to include Taiwan. Both China and Russia have opposed the missile defense plans because it would tend to nullify their own missile threats.
The Beijing government is struggling with the abrupt change in foreign policy since Bush took office. Former President Clinton had called China a "strategic partner," while the new administration considers it a "strategic competitor." Insiders say that Bush is determined to undo the damage that Clinton's policies of appeasement have done to national security.
China continues to dance between its wish to be left alone by the international community to pursue its decades-old policy of forcing its people to conform to the Communist Party line, and desiring to engage in free trade with the WTO countries, including use of the Internet, which brings in difficult-to-censor material from the free world.
China has also pursued a new axis with Russia as that country under President Vladimir Putin seeks to reestablish a strong position in global politics. Recently the CIA deemed China to be a greater potential military threat than Russia and said it is definitely seeking to dominate its part of the world. Current conditions will most likely continue for a while as China continues to build its military power. That could all change as soon as someone makes a move, possibly regarding Taiwan.
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[For a background study on China, including its prophetic rise as a world power, see our Briefing Package, The Sleeping Dragon Awakes.]