China's leaders are increasingly concerned that Washington and Beijing are headed for a confrontation as China emerges as an economic and military power in Asia, and the United States ponders how to deal with its rise, according to a senior Chinese official, Western diplomats and Chinese policy analysts.
In recent interviews, these officials and analysts described growing unease in Beijing that shifts in attitudes in both nations seem to be pointing toward a showdown. The senior Chinese official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Chinese leaders have become especially concerned about the outlook for U.S.-China relations since President Bush took office. Bush has termed China a "strategic competitor."
The topic dominated a discussion between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Singapore's senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew, during Lee's visit to Suzhou, China, last week, sources said. It has prompted China to send an unprecedented number of emissaries to the United States, most recently Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong, who was in Washington this week, carrying a message to senior U.S. officials that the Chinese leadership wants to head off future conflicts.
In addition, the Chinese president was reported to have sent a message through Russian President Vladimir Putin to Bush last week saying he hoped there would be no lasting tensions over the April 1 collision of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane with a Chinese fighter jet.
"The big issue is how the United States looks on a developing China and its place in Asia and the world," said the senior Chinese official, known to have close ties with the Chinese president. "A few years ago, we could not even be considered a competitor; now you call us a 'strategic competitor.' Another issue is how China looks at the United States."
"Both of us have to manage China's rise because, let us be clear, China will rise," he said. "If conflict is inevitable, then it will be very troublesome. People are saying conflict between the United States and China is inevitable. Chinese are saying it, Americans are saying it. It's creating a vicious cycle. It's very destructive."
A series of recent incidents has strained Sino-American ties. Bush has backed a national missile defense system, which China fears will negate its nuclear deterrent. Over Chinese objections, the U.S. government permitted Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian unprecedented access to the United States, allowing him to stop twice in America and meet lawmakers in recent weeks. Bush also hosted the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, at the White House. He approved a multibillion-dollar weapons package for Taiwan, including, for the first time, submarines.
In reaction, although irritated, China has hewn to relatively mild statements, shunning the verbal fusillades of the past. The senior official explained China's subdued response by saying that it was a sign that China's views on the United States were "maturing."
"We could easily make relations with the United States more difficult," he said, "but your government is still forming. We are really not sure about its direction. Many American friends advised us: 'Don't be too nervous. Don't make a final judgment about it.' So we have tried to be calm."
Yet, according to the senior Chinese official and Western diplomats with contacts among Chinese policymakers, the leadership in Beijing is concerned that at least some people in the Bush administration want to take a confrontational approach toward China, which could have long-term implications.
"China's foreign policy establishment is worried that the foundations are being set now for long-term aggressive competition with the United States," said a senior non-American Western diplomat. "This is not something that most of them want to see."
One reason is that the direction of Beijing's relations with the United States could exert a strong influence on China's development plans, forcing funds to be funneled into defense spending instead of economic growth.
Bush's performance has given ammunition to critics of the United States in China, the senior official said. He particularly noted Bush's comments in April that the United States would defend Taiwan in case of a mainland attack, which he said China interpreted as "basically an end to the longtime American policy of strategic ambiguity" in the Taiwan Strait.
The official also acknowledged that China's old policy, filled with hectoring and threats, toward Taiwan, an island it claims is part of China, has been substantially modified because it only seemed to help China's adversaries on the island.
"We gave Chen Shui-bian a lot of political capital," he said in a rare acknowledgment that China's aggressive attitude toward Chen helped him become Taiwan's first opposition candidate to win the presidency. "We gave him 50 percent of his success. The more we attacked him, the higher his star rose."
Although the official said China is not holding out "much hope" for a rapprochement with Taipei, he suggested that Chen's "ability to cause trouble" was limited. In the past, Chen has advocated Taiwan's independence from China.
Even the usually boisterous People's Liberation Army has conducted itself with a certain degree of restraint. Recent military exercises off the coast of Taiwan have been carried out with a minimum of publicity. And unlike in 1996, China has not fired missiles near Taiwan's major ports, although it continues to deploy missiles in provinces opposite Taiwan.
The official complained that China's softer policy has not been recognized by the Bush administration. In an interview in April, Vice President Cheney, for example, justified the Taiwan arms sale by saying China had been acting aggressively toward Taiwan. But since March 2000, when Chen was elected, China's tone has softened substantially, and it vigorously courted Taiwanese opposition politicians.
The senior Chinese official also complained that Washington and Beijing, 22 years after normalization of relations, still have not established a mechanism to deal with sudden crises, such as the April 1 airplane collision. In 1998, the two sides established a hot line between the White House and Zhongnanhai, the seat of Communist power in Beijing. However, at key moments, such as NATO's May 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Chinese leaders have chosen not to answer U.S. phone calls.
"The two countries need to create a system to deal with such incidents and to stop them from becoming too politicized," the official said. He criticized Bush's tough comments on April 3, two days after the plane crash, as an example of the type of misstep that could damage relations.
"Your president should not have spoken so quickly," he said. "We should let technical experts deal with these problems.
"In the April incident," he continued, "lots of people thought our relations were going to spiral out of control."
The official warned that any attempts by the Pentagon to scale back contacts with China's military would not help the relationship. "Military-to-military contacts are very important. They should not be downgraded," he said. "Military-to-military contacts are what you need when you have trouble." Western diplomats say, however, that once trouble happens, most of those contacts are useless because Chinese officers become suddenly unavailable, refusing to return phone calls or meet.