Why China Needed Bin Laden
Image Credit: A. Strakey

Why China Needed Bin Laden


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.

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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.’

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