Can China's Tolerance Last?

By Gill, Bates | Arms Control Today, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

Can China's Tolerance Last?


Gill, Bates, Arms Control Today


While the Chinese response to the ABM Treaty decision was muted, many potential difficulties remain in maintaining strategic nuclear stability between the United States and China.

Many observers seemed surprised by China's muted reaction to the Bush administration's December 13 announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. But analysts should not have been surprised. Since early 2001, Beijing had steadily toned down its anti-missile defense rhetoric and over the past year had gradually come to tolerate-while still opposing-the U.S. missile shield effort. The ability of the United States and China to keep a lid on heated and damaging rhetoric opens the door to a more serious dialogue that, if carefully managed, may help avert undesirable outcomes arising from the changing strategic nuclear dynamic between them.

With the ABM Treaty withdrawal announcement past, the questions are, how did China come to this more subdued position, and can it last?

Toning Down the Rhetoric

China's official response to the ABM Treaty withdrawal was moderate-in many ways even more conciliatory than Moscow's reaction. It consisted of four main points. First, Beijing maintained its opposition to the buildup of strategic missile defenses by the United States. Second, official Chinese statements noted that the ABM Treaty has served as a cornerstone of strategic stability and that its abandonment risks a destabilizing arms race. Third, Beijing urged Washington to take heed of the international community's views on this issue, pointing to the November 29 United Nations General Assembly resolution which for the third year in a row called for the strengthening and preservation of the treaty. Finally-an indication of China's concern with "high politics" and "atmospherics"-the official Chinese statements emphasized the important international role of the United States and China, which share common interests in maintaining global peace and which should find solutions to their differences through constructive dialogue.

It was left to the Foreign Ministry spokesman to issue the "toughest" language, expressing "regret" and "concern" over "worrisome" developments. Although China among the nuclear powers stands to lose the most in the face of U.S. missile defenses, its leaders did not even go so far as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who characterized the ABM Treaty withdrawal decision as a "mistake." Instead, Chinese President Jiang Zemin took the high ground in his officially released statements, expressing China's willingness "to work with other countries to make efforts to safeguard world peace and stability."

The basis for this relatively gentle response had been laid over many months. Beginning in late 2000 and accelerating in early 2001, official and unofficial U.S. interlocutors had sent clear messages to their Chinese counterparts about the likely direction of missile defense plans in the United States, especially with the arrival of the Bush administration in Washington. These messages included the point that, although Beijing was in no position to veto U.S. missile defense plans, Chinese policies and practices-positive or negative-would have some impact on how missile defense affected the U.S.-China relationship.

As for the Chinese side, the outlines of a more "friendly" Chinese approach toward the United States were already in evidence in early 2001, with a more serious, nuanced, and flexible understanding of missile defenses a part of that overall change in tone. During exchanges in the early part of 2001, Chinese strategists identified a number of steps they hoped the United States would take as a way of gaining greater Chinese acquiescence regarding U.S. missile defense plans. In essence, the Chinese response to the ABM Treaty decision was muted because the Bush administration has taken a number of these steps.

First and foremost, the Chinese needed reassurances about the tenor and direction of U. …

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