Dan Quayle, who served as vice president under George Bush senior, could not spell potato correctly; George Bush junior, now president of the United States, does not know where Prince Edward Island, the Canadian province where potatoes are grown, is. Jean Chretien, Canadian prime minister, not usually given to sudden bursts of anger, expressed irritation when he met the new American president soon after his inauguration to show him where on the map Prince Edward Island is: the Americans want to prevent Prince Edward Island potatoes from being exported south. The Canadian-American stand-off over PEI potatoes may be trivial compared with Washington’s tussle with China over the spy-plane episode, but its roots lie in the same dark part of the American psyche. The American media insists on calling it a “surveillance plane,” as if that makes their action less serious. It is clear that America is spoiling for a showdown with Beijing, because Bush has recruited all the cold warriors of the past. Even his national security adviser, the relatively youthful Condoleeza Rice (she is 46) is a hardliner.
Although the Chinese released the 24-member crew of the US spy-plane on April 13 after holding them for 12 days, the meeting on April 18 to discuss issues arising out of the affair did not go well. The Chinese had insisted on a formal apology from the US, before they would release the crew. According to the Chinese version, the larger US plane had deliberately rammed the much smaller Chinese fighter, causing it to crash on April 1. The damaged American EP-3 plane landed at China’s Hainan Island without formal permission from the Chinese.
The letter of apology from the Americans which led to the crews’ release, sent on April 11, however, was being interpreted differently by the two sides. The Chinese declared it a victory; the Americans said that they had not apologised. US ambassador Joseph W Preuher’s letter to Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan read: “Both president Bush and secretary of State [Colin] Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss.” The Americans at first insisted that their plane had followed international emergency procedures in landing at Hainan Island, but the Chinese dispute this claim. Preuher’s letter admitted: “We are very sorry the entering of China’s airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely.”
The meeting on April 18 collapsed because the Americans refused to end their provocative surveillance flights near and over Chinese territory. One can imagine the furore had a Chinese surveillance plane come anywhere near the US coast, never mind ramming an American fighter-plane and causing it to crash; there would probably be demands to nuke China.
The US-China stand-off, however, must be viewed in the context of the new mindset guiding policy in Washington. The ex-president Bill Clinton described China as a strategic partner; Bush sees it as a strategic competitor. This hardening of rhetoric was evident even during Bush’s campaign, despite efforts to present a softer image of Bush. The Republican-dominated congress is also pushing for a tougher stand against China because it is emerging as a rival to the US’s status of ‘sole superpower’. While Beijing is a long way from challenging Washington militarily, its staying power is much greater than America’s. China is also making huge strides economically, which worries the US even more. China is the only country in the world to have quadrupled its gross domestic product between 1978 and 1997, an unprecedented achievement. Its growth rate has consistently surpassed the 10 percent mark over the last 15 years; Beijing needs only another 10 to 15 years to emerge as an economic and military giant. America intends to prevent this from happening; hence its provocative actions.
This belligerent policy also reflects another American trait: ingratitude. In the seventies and eighties, it was China’s strategic convergence with Washington that helped the US to contain the Soviet Union, whose disintegration was achieved through the sacrifices of the Afghans. The Americans are now lining India up as a counterweight to China to undermine the latter. This explains why Bush spent a rare half-hour with visiting Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh when the latter was in Washington last month, although protocol did not require it. Similarly, Beijing regards as provocative Washington’s plan to supply four Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with the Aegis long-range radar-system to Taiwan. China maintains that Taiwan is part of its territory; Washington does not dispute this, yet is proceeding with the military sale.
In an interview with the Washington Post (reprinted in the Guardian Weekly, March 29-April 4), Chinese president Jiang Zemin spelled out the Chinese position: “We absolutely oppose the sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan, such as the Aegis sytem, that would be very detrimental to China-US relations.” He also stressed that “the more weapons you sell [to Taiwan], the more we will prepare ourselves in terms of our national defense. That is logical.” But Jiang, far more sophisticated than Bush, did not slam the door in America’s face: “The United States has to look at US-China cooperation from a strategic standpoint, looking at strategic interests.” Such reasoning, however, will fall on deaf ears in Washington, where a mood of belligerence reigns supreme and the world is viewed in simplistic terms. Chinese political leaders, academics and diplomats had hoped that the new president and his advisers would gradually scale down their rhetoric and begin to address issues in a more realistic manner, as Bush gained a better understanding of the complexities of world politics. Bush seems to be a slow learner, however. In fact, it is becoming clear that he does not even wish to learn. This is also obvious from the way in which he has muddied waters with Russia, which Ms Rice believes is not as great a threat as its previous self, the Soviet Union, but a threat nonetheless. Beijing is the bigger worry because, unlike the erstwhile Soviet Union, China has neither stretched itself militarily by wreckless engagements abroad, nor weakened itself economically. On the contrary, China is making great progress and has managed to shift to a market economy without the social upheavals that accompanied the Soviets’ shift.
The world is heading for turbulent times; America’s insistence on retaining its status as “sole superpower” runs counter to China’s opposition to any form of hegemony. Washington has already signalled to its European allies that they are on their own; its focus is shifting to the Pacific region, where Japan, Korea and Taiwan form the lynchpin of a strategic partnership whose primary aim is to surround, contain and ultimately undermine China.