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China keeps watch on U.S. policy shifts

World Trade Center ruins
China is keeping close tabs on the US response to the September 11 attacks  

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

(CNN) -- China's senior cadres and their advisers are divided on the impact of the September 11 tragedy on American foreign policy.

And the outcome of Beijing's assessment, now being conducted by its best brains in diplomacy, military and economic affairs, will have a pivotal effect on Sino-U.S. ties.

The so-called Mainstream Faction among Beijing's America watchers believes the terrorist strikes will oblige the administration of President George W. Bush to abandon its "unilateralist," overbearing foreign policy.

In a briefing for Chinese journalists last week, Vice Foreign Trade Minister Long Yongtu said the horrific incidents in New York and Washington had "changed America's long-standing attitude to world affairs."

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"The U.S. now knows it won't do to continue with unilateralism, and that it needs to do many things in tandem with other countries," he added. "They have understood the importance of multilateral discussions."

Chinese newspapers and magazines have run many articles on Bush's apparent readiness to mothball his controversial national missile defense (NMD) system in order to secure the backing of countries such as Russia and China for its anti-terrorist crusade.

As Academy of Military Sciences expert Luo Yuan pointed out, even such a rich country as the US has to make a decision on where to put its money and resources for defense.

"A big choice for the U.S. is whether the priority of defense is within the U.S. or overseas," Luo said.

And since most Americans think the biggest threat consists of terrorist attacks, including the use of bio-chemical toxin, on U.S. soil, there is a possibility less resources will be put on NMD -- as well as on American power projection abroad.

Already, funds totaling tens of billions of dollars that were originally earmarked for missile defense have been diverted to the anti-terrorist campaign.

Superpower in decline?

Equally significant, quite a number of Chinese experts agree with best-selling military authors Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, who pointed out immediately after the terrorist attacks that "the day September 11 will likely mark the beginning of the decline of the US as a superpower."

Jiang is keen to ensure the success of his mini-summit with Bush scheduled for later this month  

Even if Bush were to confine his anti-terrorist campaign to relatively limited skirmishes within Afghanistan, American strength in the foreseeable future would be sapped by a multi-dimensional war against a faceless enemy.

The U.S. could also be bogged down in a protracted and costly conflict with much of the Islamic world.

And of course, the Chinese leadership would rather do business with a humbled, weakened -- and less unilateralist -- U.S.

For theorist Yang Leshan, September 11 represented a "turning point" in China-U.S. ties simply because American manpower, money and energy would be focused on something other than a "China threat."

President Jiang Zemin seems to agree. While disappointed that Bush would have to scrap his visit to Beijing later this month, Jiang has instructed top aides to ensure the success of his brief "mini-summit" with the U.S. president on the fringes of the APEC meeting in Shanghai.

While talking with a delegation of American bankers in Beijing last weekend, Jiang revived the idea of some form of partnership with the U.S.

Sino-American partnership

Border guards
Beijing has tightened security along China's Central Asian borders following the attacks  

"The Chinese government thinks China and the U.S. should develop a constructive relationship of cooperation," Jiang said.

It was the first time after the spy plane incident of April that Jiang had raised the possibility of a Sino-American partnership.

This is not to say, however, that there is a lack of strategists who are convinced the September 11 incident may eventually hurt Chinese interests as well as Sino-U.S. ties.

These experts think the anti-terrorist campaign will exacerbate Washington's "hegemonic" tendencies, thus bringing more pressure to bear on China.

The argument of this "anti-U.S. school" goes like this: a shocked and frightened America will tend to favor an aggressive, "cowboy-style" approach to national security and foreign policy.

Bush and alleged hawks in the Department of Defense will thus have no problem securing a bigger budget for defense, including NMD deployment.

And because the U.S. is seen as a victim of terrorism, it has the requisite moral high ground to win the support of Europe and much of Asia for its assertive diplomacy.

As top America watcher Shi Yinhong put it, Washington's tendency to play world policeman will increase.

Hegemonic pursuit

Chinese flag factories have noticed a huge upswing in orders from the US  

The September 11 shock, Shi argued, would aggravate Washington's "crude, simplistic and non-discriminating" outlook on world affairs.

Commentator Yong Yunlong asserts that the U.S. would persevere with its hegemonic pursuit.

The only difference, Yong said, was Washington would be more skillful in "dressing it up with fancy clothing." Beijing's nightmare is that the U.S. or NATO forces will use the anti-terrorist crusade as pretext to stay behind in countries including Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which are in China's backyard.

Moreover, as Beijing Energy Research Institute economist Zhu Xingshan indicated, US predominance in the Central Asia "could have a far reaching impact on China's petroleum security."

This was a reference to China's plans to either import oil from countries in this region or to construct oil pipelines through them.

Washington's global campaign against terrorism has also raised Beijing's long-standing suspicion about a U.S.-Japan alliance against China.

Already worried about the nationalistic tendencies of Junichiro Koizumi and his colleagues, Beijing is convinced the wily Japanese prime minister is using the U.S. fight against terrorism as a pretext to deploy Japanese forces beyond its waters.

As Xinhua news agency commentator Zhang Huanli contended, Japan's "stepping out would bring no end of trouble" to China and Asia.

Beijing is also watching warily how the fight against terrorism has consolidated Washington's relationship with India, which, like Japan, is regarded as a pawn in America's effort to "encircle and contain" China.

Diplomatic analysts say while Jiang tends to favor the Mainstream Faction among his America watchers, the president will probably have to wait until the long-awaited tete-a-tete with Bush before he can make up his mind about Washington's intentions and Beijing's reactions.


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