- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Ever since September 11, I've been inundated with requests to explain the nature of the terrorist threat facing our country. But I was nonplused by a recent encounter with China's defense minister and other People's Liberation Army (PLA) officials: They don't understand the campaign against terrorism.

I was traveling in distinguished company: Anthony Lake, the former national security adviser; Dean Robert Gallucci, former chief negotiator for dealing with North Korea and a cadre of senior experts from Georgetown University. Together we attended a security conference entitled, "Chinese-U.S. Relations into the 21st Century," sponsored by the PLA and held about an hour outside of Beijing. I was there to discuss terrorism.

I left China impressed that China's defense establishment would sooner instigate a cross-strait dust-up than seriously help the United States in the war against international terrorism. Indeed, the terrorist threat is but an annoying distraction from the game of balance-of-power politics. They urgently want to resume full military-to-military contacts and resent any hint that China is no longer central to American foreign policy. For reasons that may relate to defense spending, they would rather be perceived as a growing threat than be ignored. In short, the PLA is concerned about the relative de-emphasis on the China relationship in the United States and is apparently eager not to be deprived of an enemy.

As is the custom, we were well-treated. Our visit commenced with an audience with Chi Haotian, the minister of defense. The formal element of our program consisted of three days of conference sessions. My paper consisted of a broad overview, where I placed the September 11 attacks in the context of historical patterns of terrorism and then explained resulting changes in American foreign policy.

I braced myself for a vigorous debate over China's Muslim minorities (e.g., the Uighurs) and links to al Qaeda, as well as American counterterrorist activities in Southeast Asia. There was little of that. My counterparts revealed scant interest or knowledge of terrorism. The first question following my paper asked if the powerful United States does not feel safe, then how could any other country feel safe? There was a disconnect when discussing a sense of vulnerability in the United States, and a constant redirecting of the debate toward power politics, the so-called "trilateral relationships" (U.S./China/Russia; U.S./China/Japan, etc.), and American policy toward Taiwan. The name Kissinger was heard more than bin Laden.

One Chinese participant pulled me aside and said that they were not prepared for "the feminist, liberal perspective you have about non-state actors." My stunned response that this had nothing to do with gender indeed, that the number of women who study terrorism in the United States could be counted on one hand was met with a blank look. References to nonstate actors, globalization and human rights were consistently shot down as irrelevant.

Always the conversation was directed back to Taiwan. On the third day, one Chinese seethed about his government's timid Taiwan policy. If it had been up to him, he argued, the island would have been invaded long ago. President Bush's statement, that we would do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan, was repeatedly (and incorrectly) quoted as "Taiwan can do whatever it wants." The conversation was wholly scripted by the afternoon of the second day, and the agenda seemed to be to give us a message about how close the Chinese are to taking action across the strait.

The senior general in their delegation lectured my colleague Nancy Bernkopf Tucker over breakfast about how "ignorant" she was of Chinese history (she's studied China for 30 years), and subsequently cut her off during her presentation on Taiwan. Later, he compared U.S. policy towards Taiwan to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and Mr. Lake's palpable anger reflected the mood in our delegation. We heard repeated references to the domino theory being the reason why the United States would not "give up" Taiwan. I had not expected the PLA to get "off message," but even the war on terrorism had not budged them an inch from the tired Chinese opera to intimidate, "educate" and probe influential Americans about Taiwan.

Sometimes the PLA did broaden the discussion: to decry inadequate military spending, especially when young upstarts China's dotcom set are striking it rich. The head of the Chinese NDU institute repeatedly mentioned how his twenty-something-year-old daughter makes more than three times his salary. Several others observed that increases in the defense budget are all going toward salaries and improved living conditions. The image was of a pathetically impoverished military oh, and by the way, the Kilo-class submarines they've recently purchased from Russia don't work anyway.

Robert Sutter and others contended that the current de-emphasis on U.S.-Chinese relations was beneficial: When the United States harps on China, the relationship is rocky; a certain benign neglect serves both our interests. This argument was anathema to the PLA. Either they were unwilling or unable to consider anything but a central role for China in U.S. calculations. They were particularly irritated by President Bush's special relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

I went to China in favor of resuming military contacts, but I left with mixed feelings about them. This view is based on anecdotal information, but it may be that the United States should avoid providing China an enemy, thereby giving the PLA the increased access to the resources that it desires. China is not the Soviet Union's successor, despite the obsessive focus on them after the Cold War ended. Showing them the impressive power of the U.S. military may not advance American interests, at least in the short run.

And as for the Chinese military's view of the war on terrorism: "What war on terrorism?"

Audrey Kurth Cronin teaches graduate courses in terrorism and is a faculty member at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

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