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9/11 and US-China policy: The geopolitics of distraction

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On Sept. 10, 2001, the United States and China were heading into an increasingly confrontational relationship. After eight years of Bill Clinton’s accommodationist policies toward China, George W. Bush had campaigned on taking a tougher, more realistic approach. It was time for Washington to dispense with its policy of strategic ambiguity and declare unequivocally America’s intention to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression.   

During the presidential debate in March 2000, Bush warned: “If [China decides] to use force, the United States must help Taiwan defend itself. Now, the Chinese can figure out what that means, but that’s going to mean a resolute stand on my part.” Bush’s secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy, also had been outspoken in calling for strategic clarity on Taiwan.

On April 1, 2001, over the South China Sea, a Chinese fighter jet harassed and collided with an unarmed, slow-moving U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane, causing the Chinese pilot to crash and die while the badly damaged U.S. aircraft made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan. China harshly blamed the incident entirely on the Americans, ransacked the plane and its highly secret equipment, and confined and repeatedly interrogated the crew of 24 men and women over 11 days, initially denying them communications with families or U.S. officials.  Beijing refused the U.S. ambassador’s repeated efforts to avoid escalation of the crisis, and extracted two public apologies from Washington before agreeing to release the crew.

Though the plane was repairable and could be flown out of Hainan, the Chinese insisted that it be dismantled and shipped out in crates to increase U.S. humiliation. Russian cargo planes carried out the removal in mid-June. 

Two weeks after the crew’s release, while denying any link to the EP-3 incident, the Bush administration touted the largest arms sale package to Taiwan since 1992, including destroyers, submarines, helicopters and other military hardware Clinton had denied Taiwan. It hinted at sales of even more advanced weapons, such as Aegis-equipped destroyers, depending on the threat from China. Bush also pledged to end the annual review process and consider Taiwan’s arms requests on an “as-needed basis.”   

In an ABC interview the next day, Bush was asked whether Washington had an obligation to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. He answered, “Yes, we do … and the Chinese must understand that.” Pressed if that meant he would use “the full force of the American military,” Bush said, “Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.”

The remarks caused immediate ripples in the foreign policy establishment, including among some in his administration who rushed to issue the usual assurances of unchanged U.S. policy on China and Taiwan. 

A few hours later, Bush gave a CNN interview and was asked about his willingness to commit military forces to defend Taiwan: “What if Taiwan declared independence first?”

Bush replied: “First, I have said that I will do what it takes to help Taiwan defend herself under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, and the Chinese must understand that. Secondly, I certainly hope Taiwan adheres to the One China policy. And a declaration of independence is not the One China policy, and we will work with Taiwan to make sure that that doesn’t happen. We need a peaceful resolution of this issue.”

The tone may have softened, but Bush had given a clear warning about his administration’s priorities, and the threat from Communist China was now at the top of the list.

The Sept. 11 attacks suddenly changed all that by overwhelming and diverting the West’s attention to a newly-perceived existential danger. Beijing eagerly enlisted in the War on Terror that had conveniently supplanted the China threat and, without making any significant contribution to the broad global effort, perverted it for its purposes into a war on Uyghurs.  

It also exploited the next two decades of relative Western inattention. Beijing consolidated its internal control by developing its economic and military resources, while extending its geostrategic reach. All the while, it posed as the West’s good-faith negotiating partner and responsible stakeholder on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons proliferation generally, and North Korea specifically; on climate change; and most recently, on the pandemic.

As Washington and other Western capitals struggled to cope with China’s multi-dimensional challenges to the international order, Beijing mastered the practice of geopolitical distraction, playing off one critical issue against another.

Unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, theft of intellectual property, human rights violations, threats against Taiwan, maritime and territorial aggression in the East and South China Seas, and the ever-useful trump card of nuclear North Korea, served as competing priorities for an often confused and floundering West.

The Biden administration — populated by people, including Biden, who previously had been burned by China’s deception and duplicity — thought it had created an effective counter to Beijing’s hydra-headed strategic challenge: policy compartmentalization. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, issues would be bundled into roughly three categories: cooperation, competition, and confrontation or adversarial. 

To avoid having the entire U.S.-China relationship disintegrate into a new cold war standoff, Washington and Beijing would collaborate on areas of supposed mutual concern — climate change, the pandemic, proliferation. Those existential challenges would not be sacrificed to areas where Chinese ambitions inevitably collide with Western interests and values — genocide in Xinjiang, cultural genocide in Tibet, repression in Hong Kong, and aggression against Taiwan and in the South and East China Seas.

But Beijing has emphatically and repeatedly rejected issue separation as a nonstarter: cooperation on climate change or other shared concerns is unacceptable, it says, while Washington persists in “defaming” and “containing” China.

After Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and climate czar John Kerry were rudely dismissed during their recent visits, Biden decided to take the damage control mission into his own experienced hands by placing a 90-minute phone call to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. After all, he boasted during the presidential campaign, he had met often as vice president with China’s emperor-designate: “I know him well and he knows me well.” The first part of Biden’s claim is in some doubt; the second part is true but ominous, especially after Biden’s disastrous performance regarding Afghanistan.

There is ample reason to worry about which American interests will be surrendered or undermined by Biden’s desire to return to the more congenial Clinton, later Bush, and Obama years. Given the loss of U.S. credibility from America’s callous and inept end to the 20-year Afghanistan distraction, he would be better advised to revive the early, pre-9/11 Bush approach of strategic clarity with China.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags 9/11 attacks Antony Blinken Bill Clinton Cross-Strait relations George W. Bush John Kerry One-China policy Taiwan US-China relations Xi Jinping

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