Why China Needed Bin Laden

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Why China Needed Bin Laden

September 11 distracted the United States from China’s rise. Without the attacks, China wouldn’t be where it is today, says Frank Ching.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, it was common to hear that ‘everything had changed.’ Now, as the dust settles following the killing of Osama bin Laden, it seems a good time to take stock and see just how much is really different.

Yet when one does, it quickly becomes clear that while from the United States’ standpoint, things have gotten worse, from China’s point of view the attacks were a blessing in disguise.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the George W. Bush administration came to office in January 2001 seeing China as the next enemy. The new US government’s intention was to strengthen ties with US allies in Asia, especially Japan and South Korea, and to bolster Taiwan’s political and military position.

Bush himself had already repudiated the Clinton administration’s policy of forging a strategic partnership with China, calling Beijing a strategic competitor, rather than a strategic partner.

When Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage set off on his first Asian trip to discuss US plans for building and deploying missile defense systems, he went to Japan, South Korea and India, conspicuously skipping China. The task of visiting China instead fell to the lower-ranking James Kelly, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

But it was the collision of a US EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet—and the loss of the Chinese flier’s life—on April 1, 2001 that precipitated a crisis that took Sino-US relations to a new low.

The US plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island and the crew of 24 was detained. In the United States, yellow ribbons were tied to trees, recalling the holding of American hostages in Iran. The situation deteriorated badly enough for Kelly to declare to the House International Relations Committee that ‘recent events have called into question where we stand in our relationship with China and where we want to go.’

Ten days after the crew was returned, Bush decided on a major arms deal for Taiwan, offering several billion dollars worth of equipment—the biggest arms package since his father decided in 1992 to sell F-16s to Taiwan. The new package included diesel-powered submarines, which the United States had never previously offered to Taiwan.

China lodged a strong protest against the sale. But days later, Bush, marking his 100th day in office, said in an interview on Good Morning America that the United States would do ‘whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself’ against China—a pledge that went even further than the Taiwan Relations Act.

The following month, the Bush administration offered a transit visa to the president of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, which far exceeded the limited terms provided by the Clinton administration. Indeed, Chen was allowed to transit the United States both on his way to Latin America and while returning to Taiwan, stopping first in New York for two nights in May and then transiting Houston for a night in June.

While the Clinton administration had tried to keep such visits as unofficial as possible, the Bush administration encouraged members of Congress to meet with the Taiwanese leader on the grounds that meetings with foreign leaders help in ‘advancing our national interests.’

Little wonder then that by this time, the Chinese were increasingly worried about the United States’ intentions.

An article in the Washington Post on June 22, 2001 reported that ‘China’s leaders are increasingly concerned that Washington and Beijing are headed for a confrontation as China emerges as an economic and military power in Asia.’

The article, citing both Chinese and US officials and analysts, reported concern that ‘shifts in attitudes in both nations seem to be pointing to a showdown.’

A number of Chinese emissaries, including Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong, had been dispatched by Chinese President Jiang Zemin to reassure the United States that the Chinese leadership wanted to head off any potential future conflict.

It’s against this backdrop that, on the morning of September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. 

From this perspective, bin Laden’s attack on the United States was a heaven-sent opportunity for China, one that was quickly grasped by Jiang. The Chinese leader immediately offered his sympathies and support to Bush, following up with a telephone call.

The US President quickly grasped the hand of friendship extended by China, marking a dramatic turning point in the US-China relationship. Indeed, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States radically altered the Bush administration’s entire world view.

With the United States already under attack, the Bush administration’s attention was no longer focused on China as the next enemy. Instead, it redirected its attention to radical Islam and al-Qaeda’s operations around the world. The fact is, it’s not going too far to say that China owes a huge debt of gratitude to Osama bin Laden.

After the September 11 attacks, the United States launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which, so far, have cost well over a trillion dollars and taken the lives of 6,000 US soldiers.

While Washington’s attention has been focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan, China has focused its attention on developing its economy and cultivating relations with countries around the world, many of them neglected by the United States.

From 2001 to 2010, China more than quadrupled the size of its economy. The Chinese economy is expected to overtake the United States economy in the foreseeable future and has become an engine of world growth, having contributed more than 20 percent of world GDP growth—more than that of the United States.

Today, China has global economic reach. While the United States used to be dominant, within Asia, it is now China and not the United States that is the largest trading partner of Japan, South Korea, Australia and India—the first three of which are US military allies.

In Southeast Asia, China is the biggest trading partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and China is also Africa’s biggest trading partner. In Latin America, the United States is still more important, but even here Chinese influence is growing, and it is now the largest trading partner of Brazil and Chile.

The United States, in contrast, hasn’t had a good decade. While Bush could say in 2002 that America ‘enjoys a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence,’ today there’s a widespread perception that the country is in decline.

The World Bank predicted in the middle of this month that the US dollar would lose its dominance of the global economy by 2025, with the euro and the renminbi establishing themselves on an equal footing in a new ‘multi-currency’ monetary system.

After the killing of bin Laden, the Chinese Foreign Ministry was asked to comment. It responded that China regarded the shooting of the al-Qaeda leader ‘as an important event and positive development in the international counter-terrorism campaign.’

The spokesman, of course, did not say that bin Laden had made a signal contribution to China’s security and economic growth for the last 10 years. But, truthfully, China could not have done it without him.


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. Now based in Hong Kong, he writes a  weekly column on Chinese affairs. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, World Policy Journal, China Quarterly, Current History and the Washington Quarterly, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1