A Chance to Get Closer to China


Sep 27, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on September 27, 2001.

The difficulty involved in devising the best short- and long-term responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks cannot be overstated. Crafting a set of measures that are effective yet not destabilizing, powerful enough to send a signal to would-be friends of terrorists yet precise enough not to cause unnecessary civilian suffering is a major challenge. All this while keeping our allies on board.

Another piece of the puzzle that the Bush administration must get right is China. China has common interests with the United States in combating terrorism, and this tragedy may offer an opportunity to restore confidence in the strategic China-U.S. relationship.

China has its own problems with Islamic extremists. For years, Chinese Muslims in the northwest who seek to establish a pan-Islamic state known as East Turkestan have carried out bombings and other terrorist acts against the growing influx of Han Chinese. Beijing has responded by periodically sending in paramilitary units. Separatist militants have bombed targets in Beijing itself, signaling an escalation in the conflict. Because of this activity, China has sought to pacify its borders with Central Asian states and cultivate positive relations with critical Arab and Muslim countries, such as Iran and Pakistan, in the hopes of deterring them from supporting the rebel groups within China. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, made up of China, Russia and the Central Asian republics, presciently signed a set of anti-terrorism accords at their last meeting. There are even allegations that China has cultivated links with the Taliban, though Beijing has strenuously denied such reports.

Cooperation in the fight against terrorism therefore gives the U.S. and China the chance to be partners on a critical issue. Beijing has expressed strong sympathy and support for the U.S. and even has suppressed some expressions of anti-U.S. sentiment. Discussions and perhaps a joint statement on anti-terrorism measures could be the centerpiece of Jiang Zemin and President Bush's first meeting, at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next month.

Among the measures that could be realistically implemented is an exchange of intelligence related to Osama bin Laden and the network of Islamic extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda. China's links with Pakistan, Iran, the Taliban and its penetrations of cross-border terrorist organizations could reveal useful information. Initial indications are that China might be receptive to such an exchange but sustained cooperation will be needed.

The administration will have to decide how to respond to China's calls for reciprocal help with its own terrorism issues. Some in Congress certainly will oppose any kind of assistance to Chinese paramilitary operations. It is unrealistic to expect this cooperation to reach the levels that existed before 1989 when China and the U.S. cooperated to support the moujahedeen fighters against the Soviet Union, but still it could be fruitful.

Of course, we should be sober-minded about the limits to China's support and assistance to U.S. operations against Bin Laden. While the U.S. should consult with China about its planned operations, we must be prepared for Beijing to publicly express criticism. China's hostile reaction to the NATO operation in Kosovo belies a discomfort with the United States exercising its military might, especially because it could occur this time in China's "neighborhood."

On balance, however, cooperation between the U.S. and China would aid our fight against terrorism and improve bilateral ties, moving us away from the cycle of conflict and misperception toward a more pragmatic, useful and manageable relationship.

Nina Hachigian is director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at RAND. James Mulvenon is an associate political scientist at RAND.

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