China: New ally or old foe?

Remember when America's new enemy was China? How distant all that seems now. President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have just returned from a friendly visit to Shanghai. China is once again our strategic partner, this time in the global war against terrorism. Or is it?

When the Bush team came to power, they promised to shift America's military might to the Asia-Pacific. If there was going to be a war, it would likely be against the world's last great communist power - China. US-China relations took a turn for the worse with the spy- plane incident, and tension over Taiwan fanned the flames. Events seemed to be following the forecasts of Samuel Huntington's famous book, "The Clash of Civilizations." In 1993, Dr. Huntington predicted that Chinese civilization would become a great threat to the West.

But Huntington made a similar prediction about Islamic civilization. Though terrorists represent only a tiny slice of the Islamic world, suddenly this seems the more prescient prophecy. Militant Islam may even be so dangerous that China and the West will forget their differences and unite against it. The week after the Sept. 11 attacks, China's foreign minister huddled with Secretary of State Powell for two hours, promising solidarity, diplomacy, and secret intelligence. "China is also a victim of terrorist attacks," the foreign minister said.

The US and China have cooperated in the Middle East before. When the CIA wanted secretly to support Islamic militants against the Soviet Union, it turned to China. The CIA didn't have enough pack mules; China had lots of mules. China also had guns and ammunition. Soon the CIA was paying China as much as $100 million a year to drive gun-toting beasts of burden through Xinjiang - China's western desert - into Afghanistan.

This has come back to haunt not just the US, but also China. Xinjiang is 60 percent Muslim, and the region's fundamentalists have suspected ties to Osama bin Laden. They demand independence from China, and have bombed civilians and murdered government officials. China has cracked down, and desperately wants to avert terrorist attacks on Shanghai and Beijing like the ones on Sept. 11.

But China has not made enemies in Islamic countries the way the US has. Far from it - and here's where the more disturbing part of Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" comes into play. Huntington speaks of a grand Confucian-Islamic alliance against the West. In many ways, it's already evident.

After selling guns through the CIA, China went into business for itself in the Middle East. In the 1980s and '90s, China sold weapons or weapons-related technology to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Pakistan, and even Saudi Arabia. Often these were scary, big-ticket items, like missiles or components for nuclear or chemical weapons. For China, it meant welcome cash. But for both China and its new Islamic friends, there was an even bigger payoff: putting the US on the defensive.

This summer, well before the US was calling for a coalition against terrorists, China had already created one. Few in the US took note. But in June, China invited six Central Asian countries to Shanghai to sign a security pact against "terrorism, separatism, and extremism." China, Russia, and the Muslim countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are the current members; Iran and Turkmenistan plan to join.

Before Sept. 11, the Shanghai alliance was already planning an antiterrorism command post of its own, in Kyrgyzstan. It also intends to control oil supplies; Kazakhstan is projected to become one of the world's top-five producers by 2010. All this has the effect of countering American power in the Middle East. And if the US fails to help Afghanistan rebuild after the military strikes, it could be China that fills the void.

China's hand may be strengthened on its eastern and southern flanks as well, because the US's renewed focus on the Mideast creates a vacuum in the Asia-Pacific. There are already signs that China is acting tougher. Beijing has hinted that if Americans want China's help against terrorism, the US had better back off on its support for Taiwan and Tibet. China considers them both separatists, if not terrorists - at least, not yet.

Despite anthrax attacks at home and the war in Afghanistan, Bush was wise to keep his appointment in Shanghai, lest China become too distant. Islamic militants may be the enemy of the moment, but keeping China both engaged and at bay is important, too. The West is under siege, and there is no sense in fulfilling more of Huntington's prophecies than necessary.

Trevor Corson, managing editor of Transition magazine at Harvard University, writes frequently on East Asia.

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