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POLITICS-US/CHINA: Springtime for the Blue Team

Analysis Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Apr 5 2001 (IPS) - Just one week ago, the consensus here was that President George W. Bush, worried about further aggravating growing tensions with Beijing, would give Taiwan only partial satisfaction later this month when he must decide on what new weapons systems to sell to the island for its defence against Beijing’s fast-growing missile arsenal.

In a special trip here two weeks ago, China’s vice premier Qian Qichen had warned that selling some of the systems on Taiwan’s wish list, like four destroyers equipped with state-of-the-art Aegis radar, would pose “serious dangers” both to Sino-US relations and prospects for peaceful re- unification with the island. It was the latest in a series of warnings that China specialists here take very seriously.

After his visit, the administration remained divided on just which weapons Bush would permit Taiwan to buy – largely between hawks, led by Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, and doves, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell. But both sides seemed agreed that the Aegis system was just too provocative for the moment.

One week later, however, as the stand-off over US demands that Beijing immediately return a US spy plane and its 24-member crew moved into its fifth day, it appears that Taiwan may yet get everything it wants, including the Aegis. The spy plane and its crew collided with a Chinese fighter jet over international waters Sunday and then made an emergency landing on Hainan Island off China’s southern coast.

With each passing day that the plane and its crew remain in Chinese hands the clamour for a tougher line against Beijing grows.

While both Beijing and Washington appeared to be working hard behind the scenes Wednesday and Thursday to resolve the impasse – as suggested by the decision to dispatch Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Beijing Thursday night – the mood on Capitol Hill has been anything but conciliatory.

Some lawmakers, mostly from Bush’s own Republican Party, are urging the new president to take a whole range of retaliatory steps if Beijing does not return the plane and the crew promptly – from recalling the US ambassador in Beijing and blocking China’s bid for the 2008 Olympics, to suspending normal trade relations with Beijing and vetoing its accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), not to mention granting Taiwan’s entire wish list.

“The fact is, while we trade with China, they prepare for war,” declared Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California who introduced a bill Wednesday to immediately revoke normal trading status with Beijing.

While most analysts here – including the powerful business lobby which has billions of dollars invested in China – are clearly distressed by growing prospects of a new “Cold War” against Beijing, some couldn’t be more pleased. And they’re doing everything they can to press their point that confrontation with Beijing is inevitable.

“The United States and China are on a collision course,” Ross Munro proclaimed on Cable News Network (CNN). Munro is a long-time China analyst currently with the Center for Security Studies (CSS), a pro- defence think-tank funded by major US military contractors.

He suggested that last Sunday’s incident and Chinese demands for an apology were “part of a long-term strategy” to evict US military forces, first from the South China Sea and eventually from all of East Asia.

Munro, co-author of a 1997 book called ‘The Coming Conflict With China’, is one of a number of writers, lawmakers, Congressional staff, lobby groups, and think-tanks, including CSS, who call themselves the “Blue Team” (after the colour of the US side in most war games run by the government) and fervently believe that the strategic interests of China under its present leadership and the United States cannot be reconciled.

While the team’s influence was thought to have diminished over the last 18 months due to the incredulity with which some of its more sensational claims – such as a plot by Beijing to take over the Panama Canal – have been received, its views are now getting much more attention.

The Blue Team has friends in high places. Cheney’s national security adviser, Lewis “Scooter” Lilly, for example, is a member of the CSS board, as is Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld’s pick for the top policy position at the Pentagon. Rumsfeld himself received the organisation’s ‘Keeper of the Flame’ Award for his advocacy of a national missile defence (NMD) system.

The team’s bottom line for the moment is that Washington must not apologise for the incident, in which a Chinese fighter pilot was apparently killed, as China has demanded.

“They want an apology? I’ve got an apology for them – I’m sorry we ever passed (permanent normal trade relations),” Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, told Bill Gertz, a reporter for the Unification Church-owned Washington Times, a Blue Team mouthpiece.

Gertz, who last year wrote a book entitled ‘The China Threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America’, has long been the favoured recipient of leaked classified documents on China from like-minded sources in the Pentagon.

But beyond rebuffing China’s demand for an apology, the same forces want Bush to go further, arguing that the current crisis is a major test of his ability to stand up to Beijing.

“The Chinese have decided to test the mettle of the president,” said Republican Sen. Robert Smith Wednesday, who favours granting Taiwan everything it has asked for.

The administration so far has largely resisted the drumbeat for retaliation on Capitol Hill, although Bush himself stated Tuesday that China’s failure to return the crew and the plane promptly could “undermine hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries”.

It has insisted that the current stand-off and arms sales to Taiwan must be treated as two entirely distinct issues. And, while it has ruled out for now giving an apology, both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Bush himself have expressed “regret” for the death of the Chinese pilot.

Whether those statements – as well as a US suggestion that the two sides exchange “explanations” about how the collision took place – will provide a sufficient basis for Armitage and his Chinese counterparts to make a deal that will bring the plane and its crew swiftly back home, remains to be seen.

Powell, who appears to have the policy lead for the moment, clearly things a deal is possible.

But if the Armitage mission is a failure, the Blue Team and its friends in Congress and the administration clearly intend to push matters further toward confrontation, beginning with Taiwan’s shopping list.

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