China sees the strategic map of Asia changed by US actions


The ripple effect of the September 11th attacks spread to all nations. Jonathan Eyal reports from Beijing on the impact there and the changes it has brought to Sino-US relations

The official media and most ordinary Chinese were preoccupied recently with fighting floodwaters threatening several major cities and dozens of villages, mainly in the central part of the country. But as literally millions of soldiers and civilians tried to hold at bay the near-overflowing waters of the Yangtze river and various lakes, a different kind of battle was being conducted, quietly but doggedly, in the capital's diplomatic corridors.

A visit last month from the Russian Prime Minister was followed by the arrival of Mr Richard Armitage, the US Deputy Secretary of State and one of Washington's top Asian experts.

Although the agenda of these two visits was different, as far as the Chinese leadership was concerned their substance was remarkably similar: dealing with the after-effects of the US war in Afghanistan and with Beijing's apprehensions about the future.

From every conceivable perspective, China can be regarded as a strategic loser from the "war against terrorism" unleashed a year ago by the US. And China's loss is even more galling if one remembers that, immediately after the terrorist atrocities in the US last September, the assumption of most governments was that Beijing could derive some strategic benefit.

After all, the Chinese themselves are grappling with what they regard as a Muslim separatist movement in their north-western provinces; the fact that the US was determined to extirpate similar movements in Central Asia was originally assumed to give the Chinese great flexibility.

With impeccable timing, therefore, the Beijing authorities quickly staged a public execution of some alleged Islamist separatists just days after the US was struck by terrorists. But if Beijing truly believed that it could capitalise on this opportunity, it quickly discovered that the strategic map of the entire Asian continent was about to change, and usually against China's interests.

When President Bush came to power, the Chinese assumed that they would be able to forge a closer relationship with the Russians. Like the Chinese, the Russians stridently opposed US plans to build a National Missile Defence system.

The two countries were also appalled by Washington's apparent determination to tear up existing arms control agreements, and by President Bush's patent indifference to Chinese or Russian opinions.

For a while, therefore, these two big neighbours enjoyed a honeymoon: Russia offered to build pipelines to deliver oil and natural gas for the booming Chinese economy, while the Chinese were busily leafing through Russian weapons catalogues.

The prospects for antagonism between Russia and the US were such that Beijing genuinely believed that it would be in the position of playing the Russia card against the US, very much like the US played the China card against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

But the events of September 11th changed the equation, and literally overnight. Russia suddenly became a valuable partner for the US in Afghanistan and, in return, Washington amended some its original policies. New arms control agreements were negotiated, trade relations flourished and, in the process, China was forgotten by both Moscow and Washington. Furthermore, almost every other Chinese policy in Asia was also overturned. Beijing was used to a US military presence on its eastern shores, in Japan, South Korea and - indirectly - in Taiwan. But it suddenly had to reckon with the appearance of US forces on its western frontiers as well, in Afghanistan and throughout Central Asia.

THE fact that the US is now able to use staging bases in a variety of former Soviet republics bordering western China was galling enough; even more alarming for the Communist Chinese was the fact that Russia's President Putin seemed to accept this arrangement with equanimity.

Pakistan, one of China's oldest regional allies, was suddenly transformed into one of America's most trusted regional friends. And India, a key Chinese enemy in Asia, forged new strategic relationships with Washington, which include joint military exercises. The US navy not only appeared in full strength in the Indian Ocean, but US troops popped up in Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. The rickety Indonesian government suddenly got a US boost, and even the traditionally mildly anti-Western Malaysians were feted in Washington.

Seen from Beijing, China is encircled by US forces, its regional Asian policy now in tatters. China's irrelevance is clearly underscored in the current confrontation between India and Pakistan: the Americans and, to a lesser extent, the Russians are actively engaged in mediation; nobody is bothering to find out what the Chinese want, and even fewer regional leaders are interested in what they think about such conflicts.

Beijing did its best to mitigate some of these developments. Chinese diplomats moved quickly to defuse some long-running disputes with their neighbours and proposed further enhancements to regional Asian co-operation. But most of these diplomatic initiatives have come to nothing, partly because all of China's neighbours remain suspicious of Beijing's long-term motives, and partly because some of the global strategic realignments are simply beyond China's control. The rapprochement between NATO and Russia is a just such an example, and a particularly stinging one for the Chinese.

SINCE the Soviet Union collapsed, Chinese military planners feared that Russia would be drawn into a Western sphere of influence; even the hint that Russia may actually join NATO as a full member were received with special alarm in Beijing.

Of course, the Chinese are fully aware that the current co-operation established between Russia and NATO is far from giving Moscow a formal membership in the European-based military alliance. But Beijing fears that what has started as a framework for discussions between Russia and the West may well develop into an irreversible pattern of co-operation.

After all, many of the topics which are going to be raised in the newly-established NATO-Russia Council are issues which directly affect the Chinese: co-ordination of measures against the proliferation of weapons and joint approaches to international crisis hot-spots. Last month's Russian-US secret operation to remove nuclear material from a reactor in Yugoslavia was a direct reminder to the Chinese that the security dialogue between Washington and Moscow runs much deeper than official statements would lead them to believe.

Of course, few governments are interested in unnecessarily antagonising China. The Russians are busy making soothing noises, and President Bush has invited the Chinese president for a barbecue in Texas next month.

With a major leadership change now in the offing, the Chinese Communist rulers are hardly in a position to object to such offers. But they do know that they are offered mere diplomatic gestures, and remain fully determined to reassert their influence. And, as so often in the past, Beijing is prepared to wait, in the sure knowledge that the right opportunity will come.

Jonathan Eyal is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London