THE HIDDEN Meaning Of Beijing's White Paper : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Febuary 28, 2000 This is from Stratfor.Com

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The Hidden Meaning of Beijings White Paper


Last week, Beijing exploded a rhetorical bombshell: threatening the use of force if Taiwan indefinitely refuses to negotiate on reunification with China. Washington split into two schools; one declared that the new statement meant nothing while the other worried about imminent invasion. Neither is correct. Indeed, Chinas new statement has less to do with Taiwan than it does with Beijings ongoing attempt to re-define todays unipolar world into a multi-polar one. While Washington worries about bilateral ties, China is attempting to contain the United States on a global scale, through classic balance-of-power politics.


Last Monday, China exploded a rhetorical bombshell that still echoes. In an 11,000 word White Paper on Taiwan, Beijings Foreign Ministry stated that Taipeis indefinite refusal to negotiate reunification would force Beijing to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force.

Washington immediately split into two schools of thought. One viewed the White Paper with a yawn, as nothing more than a warmed-over restatement of policy. Beijing has always maintained that Taiwan is part of China. Force has always been an option. Taiwan holds elections next month; and it was during the previous 1996 elections that Beijing hurled missiles into the Taiwan Strait to dampen sentiments for outright independence. The other school of sensed a seismic shift. Beijing had long threatened violence in the event of Taiwan declaring independence; now force could be used merely for refusing to sit at the bargaining table.

In fact, the White Paper is a significant but entirely tactical move in a much larger strategic game  one that has comparatively little to do with Taiwan. Why do U.S.-Chinese relations consistently progress forward one step  and then fall back another? The two governments are pursuing entirely different agendas. The Clinton administration is trying to build stable, bilateral ties with Beijing only to be frustrated by the fact that Beijing is attempting to rein in American behavior. The White Paper is Beijings version of classic, balance-of-power politics.

Consider very recent history, from the Chinese point of view. In 1999, four events sank relations between Beijing and Washington to rock bottom. On May 7, 1999  in the midst of the Kosovo conflict  a U.S. B-2 bomber struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Scandal over Chinese espionage in America indicated that the U.S. political atmosphere was turning poisonous. Beijings attempt to fortify its regime against internal critics triggered intolerable criticism on human rights from Washington. And a worsening economy prompted Beijing to care progressively less about what Washington thought. Relations sank to a historic low.

Viewed from Beijing, the United States was not only powerful  the world was unipolar the moment the Soviet Union collapsed  but now dangerously unpredictable. To control American behavior, China needed to turn the world into a multi-polar one. Indeed, this appears to have been Chinas strategy all along.

Too weak to serve as a counterweight, China cast about for help. The obvious partner was Russia and in the summer of 1999, events suggested that the Russians might want an alliance. But building a coalition was neither simple nor straightforward. Each nation proved more interested in extracting concessions than challenging the American balance of power. Indeed, Chinas view of Washington was overly complex, believing that various factions  the military, Congress, the Clinton administration  could be played off against one another.

As 1999 turned into the year 2000, Chinas efforts were further complicated by two extreme  and opposing  views in Beijing. One held that the policies of Deng Xiaoping were correct and that the economic crisis was a mere bump in the road. The other held that Dengs policies had failed and threatened to destabilize China. One argued for intensifying reform and engagement with the United States. The other responded by strengthening the traditional institutions of party, army and security apparatus, calling for disengagement, insularity and confrontation. President Jiang Zemin balanced precariously in the middle.

The Clinton administration recognized two risks. Not only was the anti-American faction in Beijing growing stronger, but Beijing and Moscow were growing closer than any time since the Sino-Soviet rift of the 1960s. With the rise of Vladimir Putin, now Russias acting president, Moscow there was little leverage in Moscow. So Washington focused on Beijing. This was what Beijing wanted. In any three-player game, the goal is to become the swing player who can alternately bridge the other two, extract concessions and make certain that neither allies with the other.

The American diplomatic offensive in Beijing reached its crescendo a week before the White Paper was released. On Feb. 17 and 18, a high-level U.S. delegation visited Beijing, led by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. In tow was the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston and Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg. With an obvious tilt toward security issues, it appears that the talks focused on the sale of U.S. weapons to Taiwan, particularly new destroyers and a theater missile defense.

The mission took place against a larger backdrop in U.S.-Chinese relations: debates in the U.S. Congress on providing Beijing with Normal Trade Relations (NTR) status as well strengthening security ties with Taiwan. Finally, the U.S. State Department, on bureaucratic auto-pilot, issued its annual human rights report on Friday, condemning the Chinese for human rights abuses.

The White Paper is the backhanded Chinese response to Washington on all these fronts. It rebuffs the high-level mission, endangers NTR status  and with it membership in the World Trade Organization. Over the weekend, Beijing released its own human rights report entitled, U.S. Human Rights Record in 1999, condemning the U.S. record on human rights. About 10,000 words long, the document was clearly prepared in anticipation of the U.S. report. Knowing what was coming, the Chinese knew to fire back.

Across the spectrum, relations between Beijing and Washington appear to be returning to the nadir of last summer  after the bombing, the spy scandal and everything else. Not only has the American strategic problem not been solved, the situation is deteriorating. Washington appears to be scrambling to patch up the bilateral relationship. Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, is in Beijing. The visit was scheduled before the release of the White Paper but the decision to proceed indicates that the administration does not want the relationship to falter. Indeed, President Clinton warned on Friday against linking NTR status with the Taiwan White Paper.

There appear to be two explanations. The first is simple: the leadership in Beijing is aware of the Clinton administrations desperate need to salvage the U.S.-Chinese relationship. And so the price keeps going up and up and up  from NTR to WTO status to Taiwan. China can also manipulate American concern, particularly about an alliance with Russia, to thin the relationship between Washington and Taipei  just enough to snuff out ambitions for independence. On this score, Beijing may be miscalculating. There could be a backlash in Washington.

Chinas unpredictability can also be understood through a second and complementary explanation: domestic politics. Hard-liners in Beijing doubt the value of economic relations with the United States. Given the state of the economy, NTR and WTO status are a day late and a dollar short anyway. By forcing the Taiwan issue, they can rupture economic ties and cut the ground out from under reformers. If the United States backs off, the hard-liners can take credit for increased leverage on Taiwan  and for controlling the United States.

We do not expect China to invade Taiwan. A threat toward Taiwan  imminent or not  is not trivial, particularly given the strained deployment of U.S. forces around the world. But a fight in the strait right now is not the core of Chinas strategy.

The White Paper ultimately is not about Taiwan; it is about positioning China relative to Russia and the United States so that China can maximize room for maneuver and concessions from other players. It is a classic diplomatic maneuver, well played.

The United States has two moves with which to counter. It can move closer to the Russians. A less obvious move is to simply refuse to play. Vastly more powerful, the United States can refuse to engage. By doing so, it would arm Taiwan, refuse NTR status, scuttle WTO membership  and generally behave as if China doesnt matter. Washington would risk a Moscow-Beijing alliance, but that is likely anyway.

Indeed, refusing to play with China -- while opening to the Putin government in Moscow  might put the United States into the coveted swing position of the three-player game. But diplomatic nimbleness has not been the mark of the Clinton administration. It seems especially unlikely when everyone appears to be a lame duck. Time magazines report that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is considering running for president of the Czech republic suggests that she may not have time for the subtleties of power politics.

The inattention of the administration, along with a lack of strategic coherence, is the thing to which China is playing. It is playing well.


-- Zdude (, February 29, 2000


Zdude, thanks for the article.

I find it plausible enough, as are all the Stratfor articles in general. However, I would add a slight caution. I doubt very much that China sees what it is doing in terms of recreating a bipolar balance of power. Such a strategy is a means not an end. It is a method for acquiring leverage for pursuing national aims. It says nothing about those aims.

Obviously, bringing Taiwan back under control of the Chinese government *is* a prime goal of Chinese policy. To that extent, I think the real importance of the white paper is that it defines the current Chinese policy for attaining that end, and not that it employs a bipolar strategy.

-- Brian McLaughlin (, February 29, 2000.

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