US Seeks Clarification From China on Election-Eve Criticism

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - An unprecedented election-eve attack on Bush administration policies by a senior figure in the Chinese government suggested that, despite undeniable improvements in ties with Washington, elements in Beijing remain deeply suspicious of the United States, a China scholar said Tuesday.

The U.S. government plans to ask China to clarify the comments by Qian Qichen, a former vice premier and foreign minister, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.

In a 1,300-word commentary that ran in leading official newspapers this week, Qian accused President Bush of trying to "rule over the whole world," criticized the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against terrorists, and said the war on Iraq had "destroyed the hard-won global anti-terror coalition."

"The Iraq war has made the United States even more unpopular in the international community than its war in Vietnam," he said.

Qian, a veteran politician who was foreign minister during the first Bush presidency, is regarded as the architect of Chinese foreign policy during the sensitive years after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

As vice premier, he was the first senior Chinese leader to meet with the current president when he visited Washington in March 2001, and although he no longer holds his former positions, as recently as last month he met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

His article was published in China Daily and duplicated in People's Daily, both state-run papers.

Prof. Xiaoming Huang, a China scholar currently at the Asia Studies Institute in Wellington, said Tuesday that while China Daily was "not so much of a mouthpiece as before," it nonetheless had to follow Communist Party policy on major issues.

It was a "key" and "serious" publication, and "inside and outside China, people see it as reflecting the party line."

The fact it published such a critical commentary on the eve of the U.S. election was indicative "of thinking that is spreading through at least parts of the government," Huang said.

The scholar noted that Chinese governments had for a long time been critical of U.S. governments and what Beijing routinely refers to Washington's "hegemonic approach" to international affairs.

He agreed that relations had improved in recent years, a development he attributed in part to the war on terrorism and the U.S. need for Chinese cooperation in the Security Council.

But while on the surface, relations had been relatively good and both sides had an interest in the improvement, "underneath, there are issues that neither side is happy with."

Asked whether Beijing would prefer to deal with a President Bush or Kerry, Huang said the answer was not clear-cut, but noted that, because relations with China have not featured in the 2004 campaign, "there's no political pressure" for the winner to begin his term taking a tough line on China.

U.S. administrations' dealings with China frequently developed in "cycles" - starting off strained, and then improving as time goes by, he said.

Bush had campaigned last election campaign on a pledge to treat China as "a competitor, not a strategic partner."

In the aftermath of 9/11, however, things changed. Secretary of State Colin Powell had been saying relations were the best they had been in many years.

If Bush wins a second term, the process would not have to begin again, and relations would continue to improve, he predicted.

If Kerry wins the White House, the new administration would take some time to formulate policy.

While style may differ, "whether it's Kerry or Bush, I don't see much difference" when it comes to the relationship with China, he said.

Another China specialist, Dr. Jian Yang of the University of Auckland, said earlier Beijing was unhappy with Bush's policy on Taiwan, while wary of Kerry on trade matters.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow