US-CHINA RELATIONS: More Bumpy Road Ahead

By Yang, Jian | New Zealand International Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

US-CHINA RELATIONS: More Bumpy Road Ahead


Yang, Jian, New Zealand International Review


Jian Yang predicts a difficult task for Beijing and Washington in dealing with various diplomatic issues in the immediate future.

When George W. Bush won the US presidential election in November 2000, a common wisdom was that there would be a rocky road for US-China relations in the first several months of the new administration. Few, however, expected that the relationship would have such a bumpy start.

A series of events have seriously strained the world's most intricate and challenging bilateral relations. From the very beginning, the Bush administration made it clear that it would push forward the national missile defence system which Beijing deems an attempt to neutralise its limited nuclear deterrent. Washington also did not hesitate to reset Beijing as a `strategic competitor' rather than a `strategic partner'. While these were by and large what had been anticipated, the mid-air collision between a US EP3 surveillance plane and a Chinese interceptor surely caught the world by surprise. During the 11-day tense standoff over the 24 American crew members, Beijing demanded a US apology which Washington, claiming its right to fly in international space, refused to offer. Then, barely two weeks after the standoff ended, on 24 April, Bush promised new submarines, destroyers, and aircraft to Taiwan -- the biggest arms sales to Taiwan in a decade. The very next day, Bush pledged to do `whatever it took' to help Taiwan defend itself against a mainland military attack. One month later, much to Beijing's anger, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian had a three-day stopover in New York. At the same time, Bush held a `private meeting' with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

What has happened in the past several months, especially the collision episode, will have a long-lasting effect on the domestic political environment in both China and America and consequently will have a strong impact on each country's policy toward the other.

The Chinese have long maintained a `love-hate' sentiment toward America. Historically, America piggybacked on concessions won by Great Britain after the Opium War of the early 1840s that started China's `century of humiliation'. Yet at the same time, America made efforts to protect China's territorial integrity against powers like Japan, although arguably the efforts were mainly for America's own interests. The Korean War of the early 1950s resulted in strong hatred among Chinese for `American imperialists' in the following two decades. The hatred was then quickly replaced by their affection for America after President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to Beijing. Notwithstanding some problems, the love affair between China and America continued until the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989 and the subsequent end of the Cold War that saw a dramatic decrease in China's strategic importance to America. Since then, as Washington pressured Beijing on a range of issues, the Chinese started to view America with suspicion. That suspicion turned into hatred in May 1999 when US planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade. The bombing stirred up fervent nationalism in China.

Chinese view

The collision episode has further hardened the Chinese view of America as an arrogant, hostile hegemon. Samuel R. Burger noted that `there is as much anti-American sentiment in China as there is anti-China sentiment in America.'(1) As a government that can no longer ignore public opinion, Beijing could find its hands tied in dealing with Washington. It should be noted that while Chinese nationalism is often whipped up by China's state-run media, the Chinese people's sensitivity to national sovereignty, pride and dignity should not be under-estimated. After all, there is a strong anti-American sentiment among the well-informed Chinese web surfers, especially those young, educated and urban chatroom dwellers who can be very critical of the Chinese propaganda.

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