Memo Mess a Sign That Bush Team Has Yet to Get its China Act Together

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (r) with President Bush

Even giving the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt on its hasty retraction of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's latest bit of saber-rattling sends an unfortunate signal to the Chinese: that an error by a lowly clerk in Washington is able to take U.S.-China relations to a new low.

That, however, is not the worst of it. The message the leadership in Beijing — and most China policy watchers — are likely to take from Wednesday's scramble to recant an instruction issued on behalf of Rumsfeld suspending all military-to-military ties with China is that the Bush administration hasn't yet resolved its China policy, and speaks with a diversity of voices. And they'd be right, of course: The administration hasn't yet filled all the staff positions dealing with China policy, and there are clearly differences of emphasis on how Washington should manage the tone and content of the relationship.

The Pentagon hastily explained late Wednesday that Secretary Rumsfeld had intended to say that military-to-military ties should be subject to review on a case-by-case basis, but that a gung-ho aide had misinterpreted this to imply a blanket suspension of such ties. That left reporters asking why it had taken two days for an error of such profound geopolitical consequence to be noticed — and the Pentagon, officially at least, had no good answer. Unofficially, it was reported that Pentagon sources had said the retraction, which followed within hours of CNN broadcasting news of Monday's directive, reportedly came after State Department and National Security Council officials "went ballistic" on hearing of the memo. In other words, it was the outcome of a traditional hawks vs. doves turf war over foreign policy.

A mixed message

Of course, suspending U.S.-China military-to-military ties is nothing unusual in recent years, but it's a move that's traditionally come in moments of deep crisis in the troubled relationship — the U.S. did so after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and again after China test fired missiles towards Taiwan in 1996; China did it after the U.S. bombed its embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Which is why Wednesday's mixed message suggests the Bush administration is not unanimous on just how deeply the U.S.-China relationship has been damaged by the Hainan spy-plane standoff.

Perhaps even more damaging than either policy option is the impression that there's no clear policy. To be sure, the administration was dropped in the deep end on China: Having come through a campaign echoing the by-now traditional presidential campaign trail theme of getting tough on China, President Bush had hardly been in office two months when he was faced with the complex challenges posed by the spy-plane incident. Although the President and his cabinet secretaries managed to walk that one back from the precipice, it created a pressure-cooker environment for the formulation of policy in Washington's most complex strategic relationship. Because mixed messages from the Bush administration tend to generate uncertainty and anxiety in the Chinese leadership, and that tends to work in favor of Beijing's hard-liners.