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TRIPLETT: Beijing looks at Obama

COMMENTARY:

Only a year ago the Chinese Communist Party and its security services had reason to be optimistic about the U.S. presidential election.

The Republican brand was in serious trouble and Hillary Clinton was the presumed nominee of the Democratic Party. During the years of the Bill Clinton presidency, the Chinese Communist Party pretty much had the run of the American government. Reporters for The Washington Times broke numerous stories of unfortunate Clinton administration relations with the People's Liberation Army and the New York Times won a Pulitzer in 1999 for revealing "the corporate sale of American technology to China, with U.S. government approval, despite national security risks." Looking at the list of advisers around Mrs. Clinton, a return to the China policy of the 1990s looked likely.

Perhaps given his short length of service in the Senate, President-elect Barack Obama has no significant public record on China. Following the advice of Machiavelli, if we do not know the policy of the official, we should look at the people around him. First of these would be Sen. Joe Biden, Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now vice-president-elect. During the 1990s, Mr. Biden had an intense interest in Chinese arms smuggling. He attended the classified briefings, asked intelligent questions, signed all the appropriate letters to the executive branch and supported the anti-proliferation sanctions legislation. With regard to human rights, without the personal intervention of Joe Biden, there would be no Radio Free Asia or a Tibet Language Service by the Voice of America.

For the last year, Greg Craig has served as national security adviser to Mr. Obama. During and after the Clinton years, Mr. Craig was involved in a number of foreign policy controversies anathema to American conservatives, including the unfortunate Elian Gonzales case.

However, he also served as the special Tibet coordinator for the State Department. The announcement of his appointment said it "sends a powerful message to the people of Tibet that their plight has not been forgotten." It is fair to say Mr. Greg has a clear view of the predatory nature of the Chinese Communist Party, a view not widely shared by many other Clinton-era officials.

What would Beijing want from an Obama administration?

-- First would be an end to the Bush administration's espionage investigations of Chinese high-tech spying in the United States. Some of those in Beijing's pay have received sentences as high as 30 years in prison. A number of very significant cases are pending, including the alleged sale of B-2 stealth bomber technology to China.

-- Second would be an end to the Bush administration's sanctions against the Chinese arms smugglers. This issue hits home to Beijing because the foreign exchange generated by these illicit sales has allowed the communist aristocracy families who control them to live at a level of luxury they would not otherwise enjoy. Members of such favored families can tap the proceeds from weapons of mass destruction sales for foreign study or travel, among other things.

-- Third, Beijing would want to reconstitute the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship of the Clinton era. This one-way street came to a screeching halt under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. While his successor, Robert Gates, has had some more contact with the PLA than Mr. Rumsfeld, this is an order of magnitude less than the go-go years of Bill Clinton's defense secretary, William Perry, for example.

The Washington Times has reported recently that during the Clinton presidency, an American officer disclosed to his Chinese counterparts the vulnerability of American aircraft carriers, a vulnerability which the PLA navy has taken advantage of through the purchase of critical technology from Russia.

-- Finally, Guam: Largely unnoticed, the United States has begun an important upgrade of our Air Force and Navy facilities on the Pacific island of Guam. Such forward positioning puts American military power within striking distance of Taiwan. Beijing's war planners hope to have any military conflict with Taiwan completed before the United States can intervene with air and naval assets from the American West Coast but Guam serves as a restraint on any military adventurism.

The Pentagon habit of rotating F-22s, B-1s and B-2s in and out of Guam puts the PLA on notice without raising any international public temperature. Mr. Obama could send an entirely different signal to Beijing by ending the aircraft rotation and halting the facilities upgrades on Guam.

People make policy, especially in the case of a president-elect without experience in a particular area. Beijing has access to a wide range of Americans for whom appeasement of China makes perfect professional, and personal, sense. There will be significant repercussions if the appeasement faction gains control of Obama administration China policy and the realist faction is isolated. Pushing Greg Craig out of any direct China policy role is not a good sign.

William C. Triplett II is the former Chief Republican Counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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