At a July 8, 2002 seminar sponsored by the Asia Program, Tao Wenzhao presented a paper titled "Uncertain Partners, Uneasy Rivals: A Chinese Perspective on Current Sino-U.S. Relations." Tao first looked back at the troubled U.S.-China relationship in the first half year of the Bush administration, highlighted by the unexpected EP-3 incident and President Bush's claim that the United States will do "whatever it takes" to help Taiwan to defend itself. Even so, some positive developments, including U.S. support of China's permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status and World Trade Organization (WTO) accession, also occurred during this period, Tao observed.

According to Tao, the Bush administration began to adjust its China policy in July 2001. Recognizing that the U.S.-China relationship was too complicated to be described simply in terms of "strategic partnership" or "strategic competition," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the United States wanted to establish a constructive relationship with China during his July 2001 trip to China. At the same time, Beijing formally acknowledged that China welcomed a U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Tao argued that the antiterrorist war provided a good opportunity for improving Sino-U.S. relations, opening a new area for cooperation between the two countries. Beijing expressed its position very clearly that the international world should make combined efforts to fight against terrorism. In addition to sharing information about terrorism with the United States, a Chinese vice foreign minister visited Pakistan twice to convince the Musharraf government that it should join the antiterrorist war with the United States. However, China has not done as much as Russia did to support the United States, while the United States does not want to categorize the Eastern Turkistan Independence Movement in China's Xinjiang province as a terrorist organization, as Beijing expects. Given the two countries' different priorities and approaches regarding antiterrorism, the latter cannot serve as a solid strategic basis for Sino-U.S. relations.

Antiterrorism therefore has not changed the basic framework of Sino-U.S. relations. While the two countries share common interests in developing mutually beneficial economic ties and maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the world, they have different social systems and values. Moreover, because China is an emerging power and the United States is the established superpower, the two countries have mutual suspicions toward each other's strategic intentions. In the case of Taiwan, Tao argued that the Bush administration has taken a number of steps to upgrade U.S. relations with the island, especially in terms of military-to-military ties. While continuing the one-China policy, the real goal of the United States is to maintain de facto separation of Taiwan from the mainland, Tao maintained.

Tao concluded that Sino-U.S. relations have gone a zigzag way ever since the end of the Cold War. But the stakes in the bilateral relationship for the two countries are so immense that neither side can afford to ruin the relationship. Based on the extensive people-to-people ties between the two countries, Tao expressed cautious optimism about the future of Sino-U.S. relations.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program