Disturbing the balance

Published : Aug 12, 2005 00:00 IST

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing on July 10. - ADRIAN BRADSHAW/AFP

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing on July 10. - ADRIAN BRADSHAW/AFP

Condoleezza Rice's tough statements in Beijing on Tibet, Taiwan and China's "military build-up", together with her comments on the U.S.-Japan defence alliance, cause concern in East Asia.

UNITED States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has, in a sense, complicated further Washington's complex equation with China during her East Asia tour in early July. What remains on course, however, is the overall "constructive and cooperative engagement" between China and the U.S.

In her talks with the Chinese leaders, Condoleezza Rice thanked China for having played a crucial facilitation role in encouraging North Korea to agree to the resumption of the stalled multilateral talks on its nuclear weapons programme. In the same breath, however, she raised the sensitive issue of Tibet. She also backed Japan by emphasising that its bilateral concerns regarding North Korea would be just as important as the nuclear arms issue itself for the overall normalisation of ties between Pyongyang and the international community.

Condoleezza Rice hailed South Korea's diplomacy as a major factor that accounted for Pyongyang's reversal of its earlier decision to boycott the multilateral talks on denuclearisation. South Korea offered substantial quantities of electricity to North Korea to wean it from its nuclear energy programmes and their spin-off uses in a weaponisation drive.

It became quite obvious that Condoleezza Rice, who spoke about the North Korean nuclear arms issue as the main focus of her tour, was inclined to place China in a new American perspective, not just on the Korean atomic arsenal question. At a news conference in Beijing on July 10, she said: "China is in the midst of an enormous transition domestically ... this entire [East Asian] region is in the midst of a major transition as a result of that ... our goal is to see the rise of a China that is a positive force in international politics .... The question is, what kind of force will it be... we believe that there is every opportunity for it to be a very positive force."

Condoleezza Rice said she "had an opportunity to raise questions of human rights and religious freedom" during her talks with Chinese leaders. Besides talking about "a few individual cases" of alleged human rights abuses in China, she asked her top Chinese interlocutors, including President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, to "reach out to, in particular, the Dalai Lama". Describing the Dalai Lama as "a man who is, for Tibet, a man of considerable authority and considerable moral authority", she told the Chinese leaders that he "really is of no threat to China".

Now, the question is not whether the Dalai Lama poses a threat to China in a political or military sense or even in the "moral" sense. For Beijing, issues relating to Tibet impinge on what some Western scholars have described as "the Chinese Manifest Destiny", which reasserts Beijing's sovereignty over Tibet, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan on a sustainable basis.

In the early 1970s, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai alluded to this notion in a more moderate fashion and with a sense of political modesty. He said: "The objective fact of the largeness of the Chinese nation and [of] the Chinese area easily creates a tendency to nationalistic sentiments and big-nation chauvinism. If there are too strong nationalistic feelings, then one will cease to learn from others [though]; one will seal oneself in and believe [that] one is the best or will cease to learn from the strong points of others".

Another Western perspective, a more assertive one, about China's "Manifest Destiny" is that "the new Chinese Empire" is already in existence on the East Asian stage. A point made by Ross Terrill and others, who take such a hawkish view of Beijing's role, is: "That the People's Republic of China is imperial does not mean China is about to eclipse the United States and dominate the world."

Condoleezza Rice's argument about the Dalai Lama may not have much to do with the Western view of China's "Manifest Destiny" or "new empire", but the point she made about China's military profile is of a piece with such Western notions.

Drawing attention to the "great momentum" in the U.S.-China engagement at this time, she told the Chinese leaders about Washington's "concerns" over Beijing's "significant military build-up [that] is going on". This, in the American view, will affect the "military balance" in East Asia, especially with regard to Taiwan's status.

Although Condoleezza Rice expressed "concerns" over China's military posture, she did not see any incongruity in affirming that "the U.S. continues to modernise its own [military] forces so that we can continue to be a force for stability and peace in this [East Asian] region".

On Taiwan, she reaffirmed Washington's "one-China policy". Noting, however, that the Americans "have obligations [towards Taipei] under the Taiwan Relations Act [a U.S. enactment]", Condoleezza Rice said "it is the Americans' desire that there be no unilateral changes to the status quo by either side". Briefing her interlocutors in Beijing that the policy "means that we [Americans] do not support unilateral moves towards independence by Taiwan", she said she told the Chinese leaders that "they should do nothing militarily to provoke Taiwan".

CURIOUSLY, the U.S. position on the issue of expanding the United Nations Security Council was, as of mid-July, more in line with China's stand against any moves that might only cause "divisions" on the global stage. This meant that Japan, whom she described as "a forward ally in the war on terrorism" was not assured of any practical American help in its bid to become a permanent member of the Security Council as quickly as possible. During her talks in Tokyo, she did, however, inform her interlocutors about the U.S.' "support for a Japanese seat on the U.N. Security Council".

More relevant to the larger East Asian region was Condoleezza Rice's assurance that "we want the U.S.-Japan defence alliance to be modern and ready for the concerns and the challenges of the 21st century". Given her tough-talking in Beijing on Tibet, Taiwan and China's "military build-up", despite her thank-you-note to the Chinese leaders over the likely resumption (as in mid-July) of the multilateral parleys on the North Korean nuclear arms issue, Condoleezza Rice's comment on the U.S.-Japan defence alliance left a trail of diplomatic buzz on the East Asian circuit as she departed from the region.

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