In his first and major speech of his Asian tour, President Bush on Wednesday urged Chinese officials to bring democratic reform to their country and held up Taiwan as a model of democratic progress. The speech, delivered in Kyoto, towed a fine line, encouraging a Chinese democracy but not openly criticizing Beijing for its human-rights record and extolling Taiwan but supporting a one-China policy. The president’s message to Beijing on democracy was widely noted, but there was a subtext to the speech that was also compelling.
Mr. Bush strongly closed ranks with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, despite Japan’s ban on U.S. beef exports, an irritant in the U.S.-Japan relationship. He also implied that the United States and Japan would work together to counter the geopolitical rise of an authoritarian China. “Freedom is the bedrock of America’s friendship with Japan — and it is the bedrock of our engagement with Asia,” Mr. Bush said. He revealingly added, “And the alliance that you have made with the United States is the pillar of stability and security for the region — and a source of confidence in Asia’s future.” In other words, Asian countries should rest assured that the United States will, along with Japan, remain engaged in the region, will provide security and will not stand aside as the Chinese colossus works to bolster its regional and global clout.
The president also said, “We encourage China to continue down the road of reform and openness — because the freer China is at home, the greater the welcome it will receive abroad.” Mr. Bush appeared to be suggesting that, should China make greater democratic progress, the United States would temper its efforts to curb its global influence.
Beijing clearly sees the United States as a power to rival in terms of military prowess. Yesterday, this newspaper reported that a Chinese spy ring provided China with sensitive intelligence, including advanced high-technology weapons data that would allow Beijing to attack U.S. warships electronically. In addition, the spies stole information on an aerial drone that provides real-time video, is small enough to be carried in a backback and is currently used by U.S. forces in Iraq. Moreover, China’s rapid buildup of its arms, naval and air, is forcing an unnecessary arms race throughout East Asia. As Beijing strives to significantly bolster its weapons arsenal, it is directly competing with U.S. capabilities.
Although Mr. Bush made his points obliquely, the president’s comments address a lingering question mark on his foreign policy: How does the administration view China and what is current U.S. policy toward Beijing? As China has successfully gained influence around the world, notably in Asia and Latin America, the administration, which has been focused on the war in Iraq and other issues, has largely taken a hands-off approach. Mr. Bush’s speech suggests that the administration sees America and its allies as the primary power in Asia and guarantor of peace and the status quo.
Mr. Bush’s speech still leaves some questions unanswered, but America has long held a strategically ambiguous policy toward China. The Bush administration clearly sees China as a rival power to be artfully engaged and challenged. Mr. Bush should now begin to do more of the latter, and challenge Beijing’s global ascendency.