Towards Cold War II

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Contradictory messages emerge from Washington as the Bush administration tries to draw up its foreign policy.

IT seems that not only people outside the Republican administration but even people inside the administration are looking for definite pointers of the Bush administration's foreign policy. It is not as if the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, but the Cold Warriors of the Bush administration are trying to figure out how the pieces of the foreign policy puzzle fit into a post-Cold War era and scenario.

President George W. Bush.-WIN MCNAMEE/REUTERS

The foreign policy team of the Bush administration includes those who served the senior George Herbert Walker Bush and even officials who have seen active service from the days of President Gerald Ford. And for those who revelled in Cold War rhetoric, especially as it pertained to the Evil Empire, it is not just a question of having to deal with the erstwhile Soviet Union in the form of the Russian Federation, but also the People's Republic of China, politically uncomfortable regimes such as North Korea, Iraq and Cuba and esoteric ideas such as the National Missile Defence (NMD) system.

However, the problem with the foreign policy of the Bush administration is not just the conservative ideological baggage. It is the kind of expectations that have been set on Capitol Hill, where right wing Republicans have been up in arms about various aspects of the policies of the Clinton administration over the last eight years. Bill Clinton started off tough on China, but the overall impression is that after two terms he almost went out of his way to humour the leadership in Beijing. Moreover, the pro-Taiwan lobby is intent on cashing in on the new found opportunities.

Even in the case of Russia, the right wing was not exactly thrilled by Clinton and his dealings with Boris Yeltsin. The impression in the conservative camp on Capitol Hill was that the Clinton administration went out of its way to humour Yeltsin and Company in Moscow in the name of bringing Russia on board to protect U.S. interests in Europe, for instance, in the Balkans.

All this was supposed to change on January 20, 2001, shortly after George W Bush came to the White House. The Bush team is keeping its word and in the process is making a lot of conservatives smile. Whether it is in ramming the NMD down the throats of wary allies or opposing adversaries such as Moscow and Beijing or reminding North Korea and Iraq where they stand in a Republican administration's scheme of things, the Bush administration must be congratulating itself.

But there is hardly any cheer outside the Republican administration. Many people are posing two pointed questions: whether the statements and actions of the Bush team reflect, among other things, a rollback to the days of the Cold War or, for that matter, the start of Cold War II; or, if in the name of giving a new meaning and thrust to U.S. foreign policy, the Bush administration has shown the first signs of cracking up internally.

It is not the first time in modern U.S. politics that inter-departmental rivalries have surfaced. There are signs that Secretary of the State General Colin Powell, the soldier-turned- (or turning) diplomat, is at odds with the White House, and perhaps even with his old friends at the Pentagon. On at least two occasions, Powell was told that his line of thinking did not fit into the mainstream thinking of either the White House or the Pentagon.

The first jolt to Powell and the State Department came in the case of North Korea. The Secretary of State had hardly finished telling key law-makers on Capitol Hill that the Bush administration was getting ready to pick up from where the Clinton administration left off vis-a-vis Pyongyang when Bush pointedly said at the White House that this was not to be the case. Bush added that missile talks between Washington and Pyongyang will not to begin in the near future.

The second message for Powell came in the case of Iraq. Powell said that the Republican administration was toying with the idea of "smart sanctions" or zeroing in on measures that would hit at the ability of Iraq to sustain its weapons programme instead of the highly unpopular way of targeting the civilian population. However, the Pentagon quickly pointed out that Powell and his "smart sanctions" idea were not the last word. In other words, the priority need not be on salvaging a failed sanctions regime but on getting rid of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Just how the Pentagon is going about this, no one knows.

The Bush team, even before it formally came to Washington, had come to the conclusion that only if Washington conveyed a message to its adversaries in a blunt and forthright fashion and showed resolve and persistence while taking care of national interests, would it be able to achieve its objectives. And the responses, or the perceived change in positions, of both Moscow and Beijing on the NMD question was interpreted as constituting tangible payoffs for sticking to a line, preferably a tough one.

Secretary of State Colin Powell.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

While it is tempting to see the Bush administration's dealings with the adversaries of the U.S. as a return to the rhetoric of the heyday of the Cold War, the fact is that the Republican administration is trying to figure out the acceptable parameters of U.S. foreign policy. The Bush team is also finding out that just as it is keen on pursuing "American" national interests,other nations are equally keen on pursuing "their" national interests. Moreover, many key players in the international arena are not losing sleep just because Washington has not issued a certificate of acceptance with regard to them.

If dealing with Russia or China was meant to be tough and direct,the Bush administration found the "right" ways of going about it. In the case of Russia, it came via Robert Hanssen, the counter-intelligence agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who was found to be a mole for Russian intelligence, the SVR, or the successor of the Soviet-era KGB. Apparently Hanssen was on the payroll of Moscow for 15 years and got about $1.4 million in cash and in the form of diamonds.

In retrospect, Hanssen seems to have surfaced for a larger design - the issue of mass expulsion notices to about 50 Russian diplomats,or "spies". Officials of the Bush administration tried to make the point that even during the days of the Clinton administration,the Russians were told to cut down on the number of their spies in the U.S. However, they had only multiplied. Within hours of the expulsion, the Bush administration also saw 50 of its "spies" being put on notice with a one way ticket from Russia.

However, Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, quickly played down the expulsions and made the point that bilateral relations should not be held hostage to a single issue. The bottomline in Washington was the realisation that protecting the larger U.S. interests meant maintaining a level of relationship with Moscow that had bilateral, regional and global implications.

The one message that the Bush administration appeared to have got from Moscow was that Russia was not going to let itself be pushed around. If anyone in Washington was nursing the illusion that Putin and Company can be turned around or manipulated by waving the International Monetary Fund (IMF) card, they better look elsewhere. Economic inducements are a factor in diplomacy,but Russia has given enough indications that it will not go down on its knees.

If Russia is going to be a challenge by itself and in Europe, the Bush administration has allowed itself a larger role in the Asia Pacific. Once again, with a view to humouring the right wing on Capitol Hill, the Bush administration is setting for itself a broad based agenda on China that includes hammering Beijing on its human rights record, not necessarily only in Geneva. The pro-Taiwan lobby is waiting for the Republican administration to go ahead with the arms shopping list and tick every one of the items listed.

But the matter of the arms shopping list is not all that simple, and if the Bush administration goes ahead with some of the contentious items, it will set off a course of events that will be highly detrimental not just for U.S.-China relations but for the U.S. and the Asia Pacific as well. The allies of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific will not be too happy to see the fallout of a collision course which will undoubtedly have an impact on the region.

Joseph W. Prueher, the U.S. Ambassador to China. As commander of the U.S. military forces in Pacific, Prueher was responsible for sending navy spy planes to gather data near the coast of China.-GUANG NIU/REUTERS

The Cold War flavour in the Asia Pacific is unlikely to come about if Washington has its way in Geneva over the issue of China and human rights, or if by any chance Beijing does not get a legitimate shot at hosting the 2008 Olympics. However, the Bush administration will definitely set in motion a dangerous scenario should it decide to go ahead with the sale of sophisticated arms and missiles to Taiwan. A decision in this regard has to be taken by the President by the middle of April.

Two versions are doing the rounds on the issue of arms sales to Taiwan. The first, and a more sensible one, is that Bush like his predecessor Clinton will shy away from selling four Aegis Class destroyers to Taiwan which Beijing sees as a future anti-missile shield and hence clearly as upping the ante in the region. Although the White House is under tremendous pressure, the thinking is that the Republican President will resist the pressure and temptation.

A second and a more disturbing analysis is that the Bush administration will go ahead with the sale of the destroyers, valued at about $4 billion. In fact, a report in The New York Times has said that a secret U.S. study has concluded that Taiwan needed new arms and a sophisticated ship-borne radar system is at the top of the list for that country. The assessment, according to The New York Times report, had been done by top officers of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

It is not just the Aegis class destroyers that Beijing is against. It is also against the advanced Patriot missiles and submarines on the shopping list. Among other things, China is making the point that some of the items of the arsenal that have been requested and are under consideration would represent a violation of an earlier U.S. commitment not to raise either the quality or quantity of the weapons in the Taiwan Straits.

The Bush administration knows that it will be raising the ante if it pushed through an arms shopping list to Taiwan. However, at the same time it will try to impress upon Beijing that unless the missile threat to Taiwan is reduced, the U.S. will not be in a position to put down the request of Taiwan.

The expectation is that the Bush administration, while making all the right noises on Taiwan with China, will not be inclined to bring about a new arms race in the Straits. Hence, the argument that Bush will try to meet Taiwan's needs half-way, that is, keep the Aegis issue alive but give the Taiwanese the Kidd class destroyers, ships that do not match the Aegis to some extent. The Bush White House will thus be able to soften feelings both at home and in China.

As in the case of Russia, Washington is quite aware of the implications of pursuing a blatantly anti-China policy, for there is the larger agenda to be kept in mind - bilaterally, regionally and globally. For instance, when Clinton came to power in 1993, he came with a tough anti-China line but soon he came to grips with the ground reality. Bush is no different and he will not risk U.S. opportunities in an emerging mega East Asian market.

The Bush administration had long made it clear that it is for treating China more as a competitor than as a strategic partner. However, the administration has also made it clear that making China an enemy was not in the best interests of the U.S. In the final analysis, Washington, even under a Republican President, will try to find a way out in dealing with China, even if it has to face right wing conservatives on Capitol Hill who will surely be miffed at the prospect of once again "letting down" their friends in Taiwan.

THE standoff in the South China Seas is something neither the U.S. nor China had anticipated; and the general impression is that the rhetoric will reach a high pitch in the coming days. China said that the American naval surveillance plane had intruded into its airspace, a point contested by the Pentagon. The U.S. is confident that it can be proved that the EP-3 aircraft was over international air space and that it entered Chinese airspace only after a May Day call and while making an emergency landing.

Taiwanese army soldiers in a U.S.-made M41 tank during exercise.-WALLY SANTANA/AP

Following the collision of the EP-3 with a pursuing Chinese fighter plane, the Bush administration demanded the return of the 24 crew members and its own aircraft without further "damage or tampering". The U.S. is worried that the hi-tech aircraft, about the size of a Boeing 737 and fitted with all kinds of electronic gadgets, would be subjected to intense scrutiny by the Chinese before it is returned. This was one reason why Washington stressed that the plane had sovereign status and therefore could not be boarded without prior permission.

At the time of writing, it was unclear as to how the incident was going to impact the overall bilateral agenda even as there was apparent determination on both sides not to allow the matter to get out of hand. The Chinese fighter jet and its pilot were lost in the collision.

Some conservative circles in Washington pointed out that although the so-called aggressiveness on the part of the Chinese in and around the South China Seas was a routine feature, the U.S. had not given much publicity to it. In fact, The Washington Times reported that the latest incident in the South China Seas came barely a week after a Chinese frigate came within 100 metres of an unarmed American naval vessel conducting research in the waters off the Korean Peninsula.

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