Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

29th April 2001

Bush playing 'bull in china shop'

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NEW YORK - When 24 American servicemen were detained after their spy plane made an emergency landing in Hainan Island early this month, the Chinese made several demands, including an apology from the United States and a halt to all US reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea.

But one comedian joked that the Chinese also submitted a second set of demands away from the prying eyes of the media.

The secret list, he jested, included a demand from the US to release the recipe for "something the Americans call condoleezza rice."

Well, the predominantly rice-eating Chinese fully well know that Condoleezza Rice (that's "Condoleezza" with a capital "C" and "Rice" with a capital "R") is the US National Security Adviser.

A relatively young Afro-American with a doctorate from the prestigious Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Rice is being touted as one of the few US officials with a mastery of international affairs.

President George W. Bush, whose knowledge of foreign affairs is abysmally poor, is heavily dependent on her expertise— all the time.

When the Chinese crisis broke out, one newspaper said that Bush's first gut reaction was to shout: "Get me Condy" (as she is known in Washington circles). That phrase has now turned out to be a running joke by itself.

But the only problem is that Condy is primarily a Soviet expert — not particularly well versed in the intricate nuances of Chinese politics.

The continuing crisis between the US and China is being partly blamed on the absence of any formidable China experts in the inner circles of the Bush Administration.

As a growing economic powerhouse and an Asian superpower, China does not want to be pushed around by anyone — certainly not in its bilateral relations, nor in the UN Security Council where it holds a veto, along with the US, UK, France and Russia.

But Bush's decision last week to sell a staggering array of state-of-the-art weapons systems to Taiwan has worsened the Sino-US crisis.

And in what is viewed by some as a major departure from US policy, Bush aggravated the situation by saying that the US is committed to defend Taiwan against any Chinese military attacks.

Asked if this meant American military intervention on behalf of Taiwan, Bush said: "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."

Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from the State of Massachusetts and a possible presidential contender in 2004, told the US Senate last week: "If what the president said is in fact what he means, or if it is indeed the new policy of the United States, it has profound implications for our country."

Kerry said that Bush's comments to the media were "far reaching" with radical policy implications.

He faulted the US president for trying to change a policy that has been in place for 30 years — a change as envisaged "without any consultation with Congress and without any prior notice to the Congress". The implications are just dangerous, Kerry warned.

"For example, if China attacked in response to what it sees as a Taiwanese provocation, would we then respond?, he asked. "Apparently so, according to President Bush, Kerry added.

Until now, American policy on Taiwan has been based on "strategic ambiguity" — to keep the peace by keeping both sides guessing.

The Chinese are furious about the apparent change in policy because they have always held out the hope of eventually trying to rein in Taiwan and integrate it with the mainland — as it did with Hong Kong.

And secondly, China is publicly committed to resolve the Taiwan crisis politically, not militarily, despite its occasionally sabre-rattling in the neighbourhood.

The proposed $4 billion US arms package — which includes four destroyers, 12 reconnaissance aircraft, eight diesel-powered submarines, minesweeping helicopters, self-propelled artillery, amphibious assault vehicles and surface-to-air missiles — is also expected to escalate a dangerous arms race in one of the world's most politically sensitive regions.

Currently, the Russians are the primary arms suppliers to China, specifically the supply of fighter planes.

But China is also one of the vibrant arms producers in Asia reputed for its military transports, missiles and fast patrol boats.

If US-China tensions worsen, the Chinese could retaliate by reneging on a pledge made to the US that it will not supply nuclear material to Pakistan and Iran.

Last year, when China-US relations were on the up and up under the Clinton administration, the Chinese gave an assurance to stop selling nuclear arms delivery systems, nuclear technology and M-11 missiles to what the US calls "rogue nations."

The US arms package to Taiwan may eventually spark a global arms race — with China too changing its own policy by supplying sensitive military equipment to countries such as Iran and Iraq, which is bound to infuriate the Americans.

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