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More Than Bombing Roils the Waters of U.S.-Sino Relations

Beijing's sanctioning of demonstrations is disquieting, but we are not yet at the point of no retreat.

May 11, 1999|JONATHAN D. POLLACK | Jonathan D. Pollack is the senior advisor for international policy at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica

The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade has abruptly altered the stakes in the Kosovo crisis, further undermining an already very troubled Sino-American relationship and potentially complicating the search for a diplomatic outcome in the Balkans. Beijing, heretofore deeply perturbed by the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia but relegated to a sidelines role, has moved to center stage, eliciting public apologies from President Clinton and a private letter from the president to Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. At the same time, Russian special envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin has deferred a visit to Belgrade, instead flying to Beijing for consultations.

But the Chinese appear to be injecting even larger stakes into the ongoing crisis. By orchestrating public demonstrations against the U.S. attack on the embassy in Belgrade, the Chinese leadership believes it can harness public anger for political advantage. On Sunday evening, Vice President Hu Jintao made an extraordinary television address, explicitly sanctioning public demonstrations against U.S. diplomatic compounds across China. But such high-level endorsement had already generated ugly incidents in major Chinese cities, including the firebombing of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and the physical endangerment of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Beijing, including Ambassador James Sasser.

China's decision to exploit widespread public revulsion against U.S. actions is deeply disquieting. As tensions mounted Chinese media initially failed to report either U.S. explanations or apologies, thereby further inflaming domestic reactions. The leadership has evidently concluded that it can exercise effective control over the demonstrations, thereby preventing any protests from spiraling out of control. Not unlike the NATO air campaign, however, miscalculations and unforeseen developments can overwhelm the plans and calculations of high-level leaders.

Despite China's increasingly active diplomatic stance in the Kosovo crisis, the ability and willingness of the Chinese to work with the United States and its NATO partners is open to serious question. Short of a major shift in NATO strategy in Kosovo, it is doubtful that the Chinese are likely to be mollified by U.S. efforts to limit the political damage inflicted by the embassy bombing. Indeed, the bombing has vindicated those leaders who view U.S. intentions (both in the Balkans and toward China) in the most negative light possible, and these voices are undoubtedly being paid more heed.

The larger consequences concern President Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji, both of whom are closely identified with Sino-American relations. Under prevailing circumstances, it will be far more difficult for either leader to offer additional concessions on the terms of entry for Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization. The impending release of a congressional report alleging Chinese nuclear espionage, illegal campaign contributions and illicit technology transfer seems certain to further fuel bilateral animosities. Seen more cynically, the focus on U.S. actions in the Balkans may be viewed in Beijing as a way to deflect attention away from allegations of espionage and technology theft.

Jiang and Zhu may have had little alternative but to ride the wave of popular revulsion against the United States, with the hope that these sentiments will soon subside. It is telling that Hu Jintao, Jiang's presumptive successor, was entrusted to deliver the anti-U.S. message to a domestic audience, rather than Jiang or Zhu, though both undoubtedly concurred with his remarks. At the same time, the decision to suspend an array of military contacts and security-related discussions did not extend to deliberations over WTO, a signal that the Chinese have left the door ajar to further negotiations. A positive outcome would enable both leaderships to sustain a modicum of forward movement, in an arena not comparably inflamed by the passions of the moment.

But Beijing's decision to mobilize popular sentiment against the United States, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of student protests that led within weeks to the carnage at Tiananmen, could inject even greater volatility into the equation. Amid the rubble of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the risks of lasting damage to U.S.-China relations seem palpable. There is still a window for both leaderships to reassess their respective policies in the aftermath of the embassy bombing, but the moment could prove fleeting, lest both Washington and Beijing find themselves locked into courses of action from which neither is prepared to retreat.

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