Chinese Strategic Miscalculation

By Marc Erikson
Asia Times Online

BANGKOK, Dec. 5, 2001 -- Chinese authorities quickly cracked down on
celebrations and rejoicing among some of their citizens and in Internet
chat rooms after the news of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the
US hit. But official Chinese support for the US-led war on terror was
slow in coming. Beijing stressed the UN - ie do nothing - role in
fighting terrorism, and generally it has remained muted. Few, if any,
concrete steps or actions have been taken to assist the US campaign.

By stark contrast, although it has not sent combat troops to
Afghanistan, Russia has been a staunch and crucial US ally from the
get-go. It exercised its influence in former Central Asian Soviet
republics to help secure staging areas for US and allied troops, has
provided arms and ammunition to anti-Taliban forces, and has been
unambiguous in saying that the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda must
be won, and decisively so, lest terrorists conclude that victory will
ultimately always be theirs.

During his recent Washington/Texas summit with US President George W
Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin began to reap the fruits of his
strong commitment to the US position. Even the only months ago
unthinkable, that Russia might in the not-so-distant future join NATO,
is unthinkable no more. Substantial US economic assistance to Russia has
been pledged. Continuing disagreements over US ballistic missile defense
plans cast barely a shadow over the Bush-Putin meetings.

Putin has shrewdly seized the opportunity for forging a US-Russian
strategic alliance and for extracting his country from the near
basket-case status of the 1990s.

Where has China been, what has the Beijing leadership been thinking as
these developments unfolded? "Nowhere" and "nothing" would appear to be
the answers. Its cautious verbal support for the anti-terror campaign
bought China US acquiescence when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian was
not invited to the Shanghai APEC summit. It also allowed Beijing to cast
its campaign against rebellious Uighurs in Xinjiang in the light of a
fight against terrorist separatists, and the US is not likely to raise
human rights concerns under present circumstances. But those are minor
benefits. Against it stands very substantial loss of strategic clout in
South and Central Asia where Russia is reasserting itself and the US has
become a major player, a position it will not likely relinquish again
any time soon. Perennial Chinese fears of strategic encirclement have
come near realization.

How could Chinese leaders permit this to happen? The answer is as
straightforward as it is prosaic: The present leadership - though
generally competent in economic affairs - sorely lacks strategic vision
and policy-making flexibility. It is utterly incapable of making and
implementing the radical, far-reaching and fast decisions that
characterized Deng Xiaoping's reign.

Like hide-bound bureaucrats (which many of them are), the
decision-makers in Jiang Zemin's politburo and the foreign ministry went
by the book after September 11, stuck to "principles" whose relevance
had just been seriously challenged and listened to "friends" whose
knowledge and credibility had just been found most wanting. Invasive
interference in other nations' affairs must not be tolerated, said one
principle. Hence only the most lukewarm of support for US action in
Afghanistan was forthcoming, with the added caution that foreign troop
deployments must be limited in both numbers and time. Political
solutions must be home-made and balanced, said another guideline, ie,
no-one should put pressure on the Afghans on how to sort out their
affairs and the plurality Pashtun friends of friend Pakistan should

But most debilitating proved the notion that Pakistan and its
intelligence services knew better than anyone else of what was going on
in Afghanistan. Thus Beijing fell into the trap of believing
Inter-Services INtelligence assessments from Pakistan that the
anti-Taliban campaign would be protracted, that the US would get stuck
with an unending quagmire and get seriously bloodied as the Soviets had
experienced in the 1980s. Hands off then, Beijing counselled itself on
Pakistani advice.

All these policy tacks have yielded not only nothing, but led to a
serious deterioration of China's strategic position and regional
influence. Pakistan is a strategic loser. Its position vis-a-vis India,
now a de facto US ally, is weakened. When once India felt (and was)
boxed in by Pakistan and China, it's now China that has been shut out
from South Asia and cut off from Central Asia. A leader of Deng's
qualities of insight and foresight would not have permitted such a turn
of events, would have realized that the world changed dramatically on
September 11, and realized, in particular, that abstention in the war on
terror and hidden expectations that disaster might befall the US in
Afghanistan were strategic miscalculations.

But it's too late for that now, even if belatedly China is now
attempting to reassert its influence in the post-Taliban political
process. Key historical turning points must be identified and understood
for what they are and acted on while there is leverage to do so. Such
leverage China has now lost and Washington strategic analysts are keenly
aware of it. They won't publicly say so, of course. There's no point in
gloating. But they watched as China hedged its bets and are not exactly
distressed that the hedge proved costly.

C 2001 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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