U.S.-China Relations: Immediate Crisis Resolved, but Many Challenges Ahead

Diplomats negotiating the US-China surveillance plane incident should be pleased that pragmatism and patience prevailed. Given the difficult situation for Washington and Beijing, they managed to avoid a much larger problem. Interestingly, the leadership in both capitals helped constrain overly-heated rhetoric. The circumstances of this event were certainly unique, but such pragmatism is still needed: Over the coming months, several key challenges will arise in U.S.-China relations which in turn will affect China’s relations in the region as a whole.

First, it is likely that the so-called “red-line” transfer of Arleigh Burke class destroyers, armed with the Aegis air defense systems, will not be transferred to Taiwan this year. This may placate China, but the otherwise very robust package of other weapons and military assistance from the United States to Taiwan will not be welcomed by Beijing. It seems inevitable that as China continues to build up its military opposite Taiwan, particularly its missile forces, Washington will be compelled to provide more for the island’s defense. While the Aegis system may not be transferred this year, Washington will no doubt make clear to China that it is inclined favorably toward this sale, and may transfer this sophisticated weapon to Taiwan in the near future. Unfortunately, while arms build-ups will not solve the cross-Straits dilemma, weapons will continue to be a primary way for all three sides to show their resolve.

Shortly after the Taiwan arms sales decision, in late April, former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui will likely visit his alma mater in the United States, Cornell University. The last time Lee did this, when he was Taiwan’s President in May 1995, China protested with military exercises and missile tests around the island. In addition, it appears that the Bush Administration will allow Taiwan’s current President, Chen Shui-bian, to stop briefly later this spring in the United States in order to refuel his aircraft on its way to official stops in Central America. Such past “transit visits” have infuriated Beijing, and will to do so again this time around.

Later in the spring, the Bush Administration will also decide on China’s permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status. As China’s remains outside the World Trade Organization (WTO), Washington will once again hold a debate on whether to extend normal trading privileges to China. PNTR will be continued by the U.S. Congress, but the vote will allow ample opportunity to criticize China’s poor human rights record, proliferation behavior, and anti-U.S. tone. Also, members of the U.S. Congress have expressed their opposition to China’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics (a decision by the International Olympic Committee is expected in July). If Beijing is denied the bid, for any reason, Chinese America-bashers will certainly blame the United States, and consider it another example of U.S. bullying and “hegemony” to keep China down.

So, while the surveillance plane incident seems resolved, the U.S.-China relationship has suffered damage, and faces many more challenges in just the next few months. This has major implications for the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. However, while governments in Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul have a strong stake in urging moderation in Beijing and Washington, recent developments suggest they may have difficulty in doing so.

Japanese politics remained mired in doubt as the ruling LDP party lurches toward considerable losses in the July upper house elections. If anything, anti-China feeling is increasing in Japan, while at the same time, the Japanese history textbook problem has enflamed Tokyo’s relations with both Seoul and Beijing. So while Japanese observers may hope to find a middle ground between Washington and Beijing, their government must first regain the ability and credibility to do so. Should U.S.-China relations sour, cross-Strait ties would be constrained to bring some balance to the situation. Even if the Lee and Chen visits did not take place, Beijing would continue its wary disregard for Chen Shuibian, and see the robust package of U.S. arms to Taiwan as justification for continued political and military pressure on Taipei.

Facing political and economic difficulties at home, the Kim Daejung government, unhappy with its treatment in Washington, and concerned with U.S. disengagement from the Korean peace process, is unlikely to be a good bridge between the United States and China. Unfortunately, in the near term, given the recent incident in U.S.-China relations and the Bush Administration’s approach to Korea overall, cooperation on Korean peninsula issues is likely to be more subdued between Washington and Beijing, removing yet another area of potentially constructive interaction.

To avoid extreme outcomes in the region—such as an estrangement between Japan and the United States on the one hand, and China and Korea on the other, the Presidents Bush and Jiang will need to display even more of the kind of pragmatic and long-term thinking that got them through the recent crisis on Hainan Island. As President Bush said, the two sides must find ways of constructively working with each other. Working with Northeast Asian partners—Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, and yes, Beijing—Washington needs think cohesively, regionally, and pragmatically in order for its leadership to work.