China, the New Ally

From Pariah to Friend

China, the biggest player on the Asian political stage, has indirectly approved the American attack on its neighbor Afghanistan. However, Beijing expected that the American military blows against terrorism would be directed only at “specific targets” in order to “spare innocent civilians,” the Foreign Ministry emphasized. China condemns any form of terrorism and hopes that “peace can be re-established as quickly as possible,” the declaration added.

Just four weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the Chinese government has thus clearly joined the international anti-terrorism coalition. First, it wanted to permit military intervention against a sovereign nation only with the agreement of the U.N. Security Council, where China holds veto power. China still holds open the possibility that it could distance itself from the United States in case Afghan civilians are killed in the attacks.

The leadership in Beijing sees its stance with America in the battle against terrorism as a chance to get away from its role as a pariah on the world stage and establish itself as equal partner. Head of state and Communist Party Chairman Jiang Zemin has telephoned many heads of state in the last few days, carrying on “telephone diplomacy,” which is a novelty for Beijing.

In addition, China, according to Western diplomats in Beijing, negotiated behind the scenes between the United States and Pakistan—which, following the attacks on the United States, distanced itself surprisingly from the Taliban. And Beijing also announced that it will supply the Americans with information about suspicious money transactions in which Chinese banks were involved in the recent past. One of the suspected terrorists is believed to have deposited US$3,000 via a Chinese bank branch in New York.

In Chinese Internet forums, however, postings were overwhelmingly critical of the U.S. attacks. Who could guarantee, asked one participant, that these blows of revenge would not create “even worse despots”? People should, another wrote, equally denounce President Bush for his attacks on Afghanistan as they denounce the Taliban for their support for terrorists. “Down with the Americans!” a third person wrote.

Meanwhile, the horrendous terrorist acts have had unexpected consequences for the political landscape in Asia: There seems to have been a softening in the difficult relations between China and Japan. Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid a surprise visit to Beijing on Monday. He wanted to inform the Chinese leadership personally about a proposed bill that would allow Japanese forces to provide logistical support to American troops in their fight against terrorists. His goal was to clear away any Chinese concerns. Japan’s army is prohibited, since its defeat in World War II, from becoming active again. Officially, the soldiers in the land of the rising sun are labeled as “self-defense forces.” After his meeting with Koizumi, China’s Prime Minister Zhu Rongji spoke of Tokyo’s plans with reservations, but he did not reject them. Japan should proceed with the re-valuation of its military role “wisely,” warned the Chinese leader.