Despite Feeling Snubbed by U.S., China Stays Cool

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Tired of being on the receiving end of what they see as Bush administration snubs, dissatisfied Chinese have taken to mailing calcium supplements to the Foreign Ministry here, in a jibe at allegedly weak-boned diplomats.

Although it has protested a series of U.S. moves, from allowing Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to transit the U.S. to planning a national missile shield, Beijing has apparently decided to avoid a confrontational response to the United States.

Which raises the question: Why?

China's response "has been half restraint out of concern for our national interest," said Beijing University international relations expert Zhu Feng, "and half out of helplessness in the face of what many people consider national humiliations."

In recent years, China has responded to what it views as infringement of its sovereignty with missile tests or downgrading of diplomatic ties. But in recent official pronouncements, Chinese officials have indicated that, for the moment, such reactions are unlikely.

In a speech at Qinghua University this month, Premier Zhu Rongji said: "Our viewpoint is that we must respond calmly and observe coolly. In general, China-U.S. relations are not likely to get much better or much worse."

Beijing's tepid stance stems from a long-standing view that, although the United States seeks to split and Westernize it, China must rely on trade and exchanges with the U.S. to modernize. Therefore, Beijing's unstated policy toward Washington, to use a Chinese saying, is to taoguang yanghui, or conceal its abilities and bide its time until becoming stronger.

"When you look at the options for retribution, there's not much China can do now that won't harm its own interests in the process," said a government researcher speaking on condition of anonymity.

More broadly, the role of Chinese foreign policy as conceived by the late leader Deng Xiaoping is to ensure a stable international environment for the country's economic development.

The nation's traditionally inward-looking politics are already gripped by the run-up to next year's 16th Communist Party Congress, which will produce a new generation of leaders, even as the government battles corruption, the Falun Gong spiritual group and unrest among unemployed workers and farmers.

Nor can China afford to endanger its bids to host the 2008 Olympics and join the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, domestic politics and poor bureaucratic communications have hampered China's ability to respond effectively to international crises.

For about nine hours after a U.S. reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in April, for example, telephone calls from exasperated U.S. officials went unanswered as Chinese leaders huddled, trying to assess what was happening on Hainan island, where the plane had landed, and forging a consensus on how to explain the incident to their domestic audience.

Even when U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher finally got through to the Foreign Ministry, the Chinese side "was still not clear about what exactly had happened," the government researcher said. "Not even the military in Beijing could find out the exact situation from the military in Hainan."

China's tortuous decision-making process "makes the entire relationship less manageable and makes it harder for Chinese leaders to make commitments and deliver on them," said Robert Ross, a China specialist at Boston College.

In an unpublicized effort to devise ways of better handling emerging crises, China last year assembled a Security Leadership Working Group, vaguely akin to the U.S. National Security Council.

But the group, headed by President Jiang Zemin, is basically an ad hoc committee of the same leaders who handle other matters of state, not a permanent, staffed bureaucracy like the NSC.

"It has no transparency, and its limits of power are poorly defined," Beijing University's Zhu said.

The recent slew of disputes with Washington has Chinese analysts asking themselves where they went wrong in assessing the incoming Bush administration. Zhu said the Chinese had been confident that, as in the cases of previous U.S. presidents, Bush's campaign-trail bluster would give way to pragmatism once he got in office.

"Bush's performance has given us all a big surprise," Zhu said. "We didn't think there would be such a big change."

But Beijing's wait-and-see attitude may yet serve it well, because Bush's tone on China has softened. While the president still apparently sees China as a strategic competitor, he recently advocated renewal of China's normal trading status by reiterating the line of his predecessor, President Clinton, that the emergence of a strong and stable China is in the United States' best interests.

Still, analysts fear that China's moderate course could embolden U.S. hard-liners to ratchet up pressure on Beijing, provoking it until it has no choice but to retaliate.

"We're out there pushing an envelope," said Boston College's Ross, "and we don't know where China will draw a red line."

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