Straits Times, January 11, 2002

As America's military campaign against Al-Qaeda terrorists and their Taleban sponsors in Afghanistan enters a new and more ambiguous phase, the future direction of the Bush administration's foreign policy has again become the focus of concern for the international community.

Topping the list of worries shared by many nations is, obviously, whether US President George W. Bush would expand his war on terrorism to other lands.

A different type of anxiety, though seldom expressed loudly, is whether he would start paying some attention to other important long-term international issues which have been relegated to the back burner by the events following the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

These issues include the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, global warming, liberalisation of international trade, Washington's plan for a national missile defence (NMD) system, and America's unsettled relations with China and Russia.

Immediately after the events on Sept 11, it was widely hoped that Washington would reverse the unilateralist trend characteristic of the foreign policy of the new administration and some of its controversial positions.

The record of the past three months is, however, decidedly mixed.

To the credit of the Bush administration, the US has resumed its role as mediator in the Middle East peace talks.

American leadership was also critical in reaching a World Trade Organisation agreement in Doha for a new round of trade-liberalisation talks.

But Washington's other actions were far less reassuring. For example, its recent decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was viewed widely as an insensitive, unnecessary and ill-considered step that openly humiliated Russia despite the latter's staunch support for Washington's war on terrorism.

The hope that the events of Sept 11 would end Washington's unilateralist habits in world affairs is being replaced by the fear that America's surprisingly successful military campaign in Afghanistan may have only emboldened the hardliners on the Bush team to resume pushing their muscular foreign-policy agenda that was inconveniently interrupted by international terrorism.

Such a turn would certainly alarm many members of the international community - most of all, China.

DEEP SUSPICIONS

Despite the dramatic changes in American foreign-policy priorities immediately following Sept 11, the relationship between the US and China has not changed much.

The rhetoric may have improved, but ties remain fragile and unstable, and as vulnerable as ever to sudden deterioration as a result of accidents, misperceptions, and eruption of unresolved bilateral issues.

There are several reasons the war on terrorism has not brought America and China closer (thankfully, it has not driven them farther apart).

China's role in America's war on terrorism has been relatively minor. Even though Afghanistan borders China and Pakistan is a long-term Chinese ally, the US did not need to obtain China's cooperation to launch its military campaign in the region.

Instead, it went directly to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to gain over-flight and basing rights critical to the success of the campaign.

China may have helped the US behind the scenes in the case of Pakistan, but any such assistance has not been acknowledged by the US government and is thus unlikely to be reciprocated by Washington.

Although rhetorically Chinese leaders have demonstrated their solidarity with the Americans and view themselves as allies in the war on terror, their substantive contribution has so far been confined to limited sharing of intelligence and crackdown on money laundering.

From Washington's perspective, Beijing's stance seemed hesitant, tentative and reserved.

For its part, the Bush administration did not appear to be eager to enlist China's assistance.

Beijing was treated consistently as a secondary player (Chinese President Jiang Zemin was not among the first round of world leaders Mr Bush called before he launched the military attacks in Afghanistan).

Beijing's own lack of leverage in the region might have obviated the need for its strategic assistance.

At the same time, there was no good reason for Washington to put itself substantially in 'debt' to Beijing, for any such debt might lead China to demand important concessions later.

In fact, Washington made it very clear shortly after Sept 11 that it would not engage in any quid pro quo with Beijing.

The US refused to embrace China's own struggle against Muslim separatists.

To reassure Taiwan, Washington allowed an arms deal to go through following Sept 11 and granted Taiwan's vice-president a 'transit visa' for a stopover in New York this week.

In addition, the key issues underlying the uncertainty between Washington and Beijing are completely unaffected by the ongoing war on terrorism.

From the perennial problem of Taiwan, to human rights, and to NMD, China and the US remain deeply divided and suspicious of each other.

Mr Bush's decision last month to abrogate the ABM treaty served only to underscore Chinese leaders' fear that, contrary to its rhetoric, Washington's ambition for absolute security has not been moderated by its need for allies in the war on terrorism.

For Beijing, a more telling piece of evidence of Washington's long-term intentions towards China is not White House declarations of goodwill and reassurance, but the Pentagon's strategic doctrines and war plans where China is directly concerned.

Practically unnoticed by the US media, the latest Quadrennial Defence Report released by the US Defence Department in September last year confirmed the Pentagon's intentions to strengthen American military capabilities in East Asia.

Many strategic analysts in China view such a move as directed against China.

One of the key lessons from the past episodes of US-China tensions was that top-level attention and direct management are absolutely essential in maintaining stability in this complex and fragile relationship.

In the past, bilateral frictions initially considered too minor to warrant top-leader attention festered into serious conflicts and even, on occasions, led to dangerous crises. This was the case with then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's 1995 visit to the US that later resulted in the March 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.

THREE CRUCIAL ISSUES

In the near to medium term, top- level engagement is urgently needed on three crucial bilateral issues to develop mutual trust and mechanisms of stability in Sino-American relations.

First, China and the US need to find a short-term modus vivendi that can stabilise the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

For Beijing's part, it must reassure Washington of its patience over the eventual resolution of the Taiwan issue and its commitment to a peaceful one. In return, Washington must recalibrate its current stance.

In the past year, US policy tilted towards military deterrence against China even as Washington watered down its rhetoric and substantive commitment to its longstanding 'one-China' policy.

President Bush must recognise that military deterrence and political reassurance are both required to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait.

Such reassurance is now especially needed because the current government in Taipei has openly rejected the 'one-China principle' - a principle that has long served American national interests.

Second, as the Bush administration has now passed the point of no return on NMD, a substantive strategic dialogue over missile defence and nuclear weapons is needed to stave off a potentially dangerous arms race.

Mr Bush has taken a welcome step in that direction when he called President Jiang last month to express Washington's willingness to engage Beijing on this issue.

However, such verbal reassurance cannot dispel the deeply-held suspicions in both capitals regarding each other's intentions. Real steps must follow.

Third, China is legitimately concerned about the nature and scope of planned upgrading of American military presence in East Asia.

While American presence in East Asia is critical to the region's stability, a substantial increase in American deployments could easily cause alarm in China and elsewhere in the region - especially if such a development occurs in a context of rising mutual suspicions and reduced high-level dialogue.

Mr Bush's plan to visit major East Asian countries, including China, perhaps this year, may create the needed opportunity to strengthen the foundations for US-China relations.

A focus on security issues may diverge from Mr Bush's earlier emphasis on furthering commercial ties with Beijing, but these are precisely the most difficult and dangerous problems for Washington and Beijing.

Neither side can afford to neglect them for long.