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As both Washington and Beijing maneuver diplomatically ahead of a meeting between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and U.S. President George W. Bush in October, the White House has appeased the Chinese government by calling an ethnic Uighur militant group in western China a "terrorist group."
During a two-day visit to Beijing Aug. 25 and 26, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said that, after careful study, Washington had determined that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, was a "terrorist group" that had "committed acts of violence against unarmed civilians without any regard for who was hurt." Beijing has spent nearly all of the last year trying to convince Washington and others that the group and other Muslim Uighur separatists from China's western Xinjiang region are part of the larger international terrorist threat.
Armitage was not alone in granting diplomatic concessions during the trip. Just prior to his arrival, Beijing announced new regulations to tighten control over the export of missile parts and technology, something Washington had been urging for years. Both sides are trying to shore up relations prior to Jiang's highly symbolic October visit to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. As the date approaches, the rhetoric from both sides will take on a more congenial tone, although they still harbor serious differences.
But, more important than appearances, the Crawford meeting may set the tone for Chinese-U.S. ties for years to come. Relations between the two plummeted after the April 2001 collision of a Chinese fighter and a U.S. surveillance aircraft near the southeastern Chinese coastline. The shifting U.S. foreign policy after the Sept. 11 attacks did little to improve the situation, as China was relegated to the backburner of U.S. interests and Washington used basing agreements with several Central Asian states to gain a presence in China's backyard.
In the past few months, Beijing and Washington have slowly moved to ameliorate this dismal state of affairs. Peter Rodman, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, traveled to Beijing in June to discuss the re-establishment of bilateral military ties curtailed after the April collision. A month later, following the release of a U.S. Congressional report warning of China's growing military and economic threat, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell downplayed the danger and said it was natural that China would transfer some of its growing economic strength into modernizing its military.
More recently, the U.S. commander of the Pacific Air Forces, Gen. William Begert, told reporters Aug. 23 that China had been "very professional" in monitoring U.S. surveillance aircraft over its coast, which would be a noted change from the aggressive actions of Chinese pilots that led to the April 2001 incident. And during his visit to Beijing, Armitage told his Chinese counterparts that Washington had made no decision on attacking Iraq yet and would consult with China before taking action.
The latter comment was particularly pleasing to Chinese officials, as it seemed to confirm Beijing's impression of itself as a major player in international events.
Yet not everything is well in Beijing-Washington relations, as Armitage's visit made clear. China still opposes U.S. military action in Iraq, and Beijing hosted Baghdad's foreign minister just hours after Armitage left. On the contentious issue of Taiwan, Armitage stated that the United States did not support Taiwanese independence, a comment much repeated in the official Chinese media. But he added that Washington did not necessarily "oppose" independence either.
And even Armitage's declaration of the ETIM as a terrorist organization may prove a mixed blessing for Beijing. State Department officials in Washington were quick to clarify that the group had not been added to the list of foreign terrorist organizations, but had simply been labeled "a group that would be subject to Executive Order 13224."
This bureaucratic hair-splitting means that the ETIM is one of hundreds of groups linked to overseas terrorist activities – and thus is subject to domestic U.S. financial sanctions – but is not a designated terrorist organization subject to broader international action.
For Beijing, just mentioning the ETIM in the same breath as "terrorism" was a good enough bonus for now, but in the long run it may present new difficulties for China. While a temporary boon to Chinese relations, Washington's action was just as much for the benefit of Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states that are also threatened by Uighur militants.
The United States is strengthening military, political and economic ties in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where it has around 2,000 troops and support personnel stationed. These states, as well as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, have been the scene of several bombings and killings that Beijing has linked to the ETIM or other Uighur militant separatists.
Kyrgyzstan recently deported two suspected Uighur militants for the assassination of a Chinese diplomatic official and an ethnic Uighur Chinese businessman in June. If the United States recognized the ETIM as a terrorist organization, it would strengthen its military ties with Kyrgyzstan and solidify Washington's military position near China's western frontier, giving the United States the ability to directly impact Beijing's ongoing crackdown on suspected Uighur militants and dissidents.
The U.S. military presence in Central Asia, as well as the broader shift in U.S. military relations and deployments after Sept. 11, remains at the core of U.S.- Chinese ties, particularly as Beijing prepares for a long-awaited leadership transition later this year and early next year. It is this change in leadership, as much as anything else, that both Beijing and Washington are focusing on as the two nations' presidents prepare to meet in October.
The Crawford summit is a highly symbolic occasion for Jiang, and he has been trying to gain an invitation to Bush's ranch for more than a year. The visit would solidify his position among the pantheon of Chinese leaders, making him the recognized successor to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and proving that he was a world leader on par with the U.S. president.
Jiang is desperate to have everything go as smoothly as possible, and the next two months likely will prove a public relations blitz for the Chinese leader as he shapes ties with Washington to try to show that the two sides are equals.
For Washington, the summit may prove even more important. The U.S. administration also is hoping to shape the transition process in China, and treating Jiang and China well may help guarantee that the so-called reformers, or at least the more pragmatic Chinese leadership, emerge on top. If Washington continues to give the impression that China doesn't matter – or worse, that China is a threat – U.S. officials are concerned that it could lend credence to the other factions, bringing a more belligerent regime to power in Beijing.
As both nations anxiously look toward the Crawford summit, more instances of diplomatic concessions are likely. And any public statements of disagreement will be carefully managed to allow the deliverer to state his position without risking derailing bilateral ties.