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U.S. and China Open a Door

Authors: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, and Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies
October 26, 2001
Newsday

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President Bush’s visit to Shanghai this weekend to attend the APEC Forum offers a fresh opportunity to make concrete advances in the Sino-American relationship, while realizing the U.S. priority of combating terrorism. However, China’s current asking price for its cooperation, namely stamping out the threat of Uighur separatists in Xinjiang, may be more than the U.S. can pay. China has already signaled its willingness to set aside some of its traditional security considerations to support the U.S.’s call for a global campaignagainst terrorism. The Chinese have not protested against the bombing of Afghanistan, the stationing of U.S. forces in the region, or discussions of nation-building for post-war Afghanistan, all actions which would usually evoke sharp criticism from China. China’s apparent new flexibility does offer the potential for real gains in the bilateral relationship. Still, the U.S. must realize that there are real differences between American and Chinese concerns. The possible goals of bilateral cooperation, and any joint policy effort should be consideredwith that in mind.

China’s fears concerning terrorism center most directly on the Muslim Uighur separatistsbased in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, who are calling for an independent state of Eastern Turkestan.A largely barren and impoverished region, Xinjiang occupies one-sixth of China’s territory and bordersMongolia and Russia, as well as a number of countries confronting the threat of Muslim extremism, including: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The eight million Uighurs, who now comprise slightly less than half the population, have been a source of ethnic unrest since the territory was annexed to China in 1759.During the 1990s, violent protest occurred with increasing frequency.One official report puts the total at a few thousand incidents, including riots, explosions, assassinations, and other terrorist activities. The death toll in the first three months of 1999 alone was over 100 people.

On the face of it, the United States and China face a common threat, especially since China claims that many young Uighurs are being trained by Taliban members from Pakistan and Afghanistan. During his meeting with President Bush, President Jiang can point to the “Shanghai Six Process” as a model of how to use economic, military, and diplomatic measures to build a regional coalition to combat terrorism. Consisting of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Tajikistan, the Shanghai Six have pledged greater cooperation in economic and cultural affairs and to crack down on “terrorist” movements that threaten the internal stability of their neighbors, using such mechanisms as extradition treaties.

The U.S. should support continued cooperation among all the actors in the region, and China’s efforts to limit terrorist activity within its own borders. However, U.S. policy makers must realize that Beijing’s solution to its current dilemma is a significant part of the problem. In addition to launching several “strike hard” campaigns to root out and punish not only suspected terrorists but also non-violent separatists, the Chinese leadership has consistently undermined the development of a politically stable, economically secure Xinjiang by encouraging large-scale migration of Chinese from other provinces to Xinjiang. These Han Chinese control the local economy, sucking the region dry of its mineral and new-found oil reserves, as well as diverting precious water resources away from Uighur communities. China’s reluctance to tackle openly its many growing social problems also contributes to make Xinjiang a center for narcotics trafficking with the second highest incidence of AIDs in the country.

The nature of China’s challenge suggests that indeed potential for Sino-American cooperation is significant. However, the shape of that cooperation is likely to be quite different from what China is seeking. Rather than blanket acceptance of China’s current policies, the United States should cooperate with Beijing on four fronts. First, Washington should support American business participation in China’s ‘Go West’ campaign to target the poorer interior provinces of the country such as Xinjiang for increased foreign investment, taking steps to ensure that Uighurs as well Han Chinese benefit from such investment. Reinstating OPIC support for U.S. businesses in China would assist in this process by reducing the risk to U.S. investors. Second, the United States Congress should reinstate the U.S.-Asia Environmental Partnership in China and authorize additional funds for Sino-American environmental cooperation in Xinjiang to help local leaders and environmental activists reverse the trend of growing water scarcity and severe environmental degradation. Third, China and the United States should work together to provide AIDS education and training for local public health officials and the general populace. Finally, the United States should adopt an approach similar to its Tibet policy, encouraging the type of wide-ranging and open-ended dialogue between Beijing and the Uighurs that will be necessary to ensure long-term regional stability.

For the last thirty years, the U.S. and China have struggled to find a common agenda on which to build a stable relationship. Weapons proliferation, human rights, and Taiwan continue to be roadblocks in forging closer ties, and cooperation over terrorism will not make these issues any less difficult to resolve. Still, the events of September 11 have opened the door to new and important possibilities for future cooperation and a broader, perhaps more meaningful, dialogue on issues of long-term bilateral concern.

Elizabeth Economy

Deputy Director for Asia Studies,

Senior Fellow for China

The Council on Foreign Relations

Adam Segal

Next Generation Fellow, Asia Studies

The Council on Foreign Relations

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