Since the publication of my article, there has been a notable shift away from the Bush administration’s previous refusal to equate the fight against "terrorists with global reach" with crackdowns against Muslim Uighur separatists in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. In August 2002, the U.S. finally recognized the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIP) as a terrorist organization, in contrast to its former position that China’s counter-terrorism campaign should not be used to persecute ethnic Uighurs opposed to Chinese rule in Xinjiang. This was despite the fact that the ETIP has always been known by U.S. intelligence to be a member organization of Osama bin Laden’s "International Islamic Front For Jihad Against the USA and Israel."

As part of the global effort to combat terrorism, the Chinese government approved earlier this year the establishment of an FBI Legal Attache in Beijing and, at the request of the United States, searched Chinese banks to interdict possible funding for terrorist groups. In return for Washington’s implicit blessing of Beijing’s suppression of separatist activities in Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities enacted new regulations to assert direct government control over companies exporting missiles and related technology, to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists. This quid pro quo reflects both China’s respect for America’s priorities, and U.S. recognition of China as an ally against terrorism.

Since September 11, 2001, some analysts have suggested that a new basis of strategic cooperation between China and the United States may be found in their common interest in fighting terrorism. However, should the United States fail to obtain China’s support for an assault on Iraq, or suspect the Chinese government of conniving in the sale of missile technology to U.S. enemies, counter-terrorism will not be a sufficient underpinning for U.S.-China relations. America’s troop presence in Central Asia, together with its military bases in the Western Pacific and arms sales to Taiwan, are already contributing to a Chinese perception of encirclement. Moreover, a U.S. attack on Iraq may fuel anger and spark violence against Beijing among the Xinjiang militants. The U.S.-China relationship needs to rest on more pillars, if it is not to relapse into the unproductive "strategic competitor" or "unipolar hegemon" rhetoric which respectively characterized U.S. and Chinese views of the other during the early months of the Bush administration.

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  • Chien-peng Chung is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore.
  • More By Chien-peng Chung