In the lexicon of George W. Bush’s administration, mainland China is no longer a “strategic competitor” — a phrase coined by the president during his campaign to describe U.S. relations with Beijing.
But Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said here Monday that the jury is still out on the ultimate character of the critical PRC-U.S. relationship.
In a rare joint appearance after Australia U.S. security meetings, Powell and Rumsfeld were pressed to define U.S. relations with Beijing — and denied that any gaps existed between them on the issue.
“My personal view is that the People’s Republic of China’s future is not yet written — they are evolving, our relationship with them is multi-faceted … what kinds of decisions they will make over the coming period I think is unclear,” Rumsfeld said.
He said he had never favored the designation “strategic competitor” and quipped: “I haven’t put any Rumsfeldian code words on it.”
The phrase was meant to differentiate the Bush team’s mainland China strategy from that of former president Bill Clinton’s administration, which framed policy hoping that in time, Beijing could become a “strategic partner.”
Powell told reporters on his plane late Sunday en route from Beijing to Australia for the final leg of a five-nation Asian tour that he had stopped using the term.
“The relationship is so complex with so many different elements to it that it’s probably wiser not to capture it with a single word or a single term or cliche.”
“We may find a term in due course that will capture all of that, but I prefer not to use the language of a single term.”
Bush, then governor of Texas, sparked debate on the definition of mainland China in a speech at the Ronald Reagan library in California in November of 1999 laying out his foreign policy priorities.
“China is a competitor, not a strategic partner. We must deal with China without ill-will but without illusions,” he said.
The semantics of the debate may appear baffling outside the United States, but they reflect a fierce debate in Washington policy circles over how the world’s sole superpower should respond to Beijing’s rise to prominence.
At either ends of that debate — at least as seen in the media and the knot of policy think-tanks based in Washington — are Rumsfeld and Powell.
Rumsfeld is generally seen as representative of hawks, suspicious of China, emanating mostly from his background in the Pentagon and the intelligence services.
Powell, however is seen as more of a pragmatist, representing the diplomatic pro engagement approach generally favored by the State Department.
Those cliches were bolstered by the action of both in the crisis over a downed U.S. spyplane in April. In a kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine, Powell was painted as a conciliator and Rumsfeld as bullish and confrontational.
Powell tacitly admitted differences of approach himself on Monday.
“I always come to it from a foreign policy perspective and the Secretary (Rumsfeld) from a defense perspective,” Powell said.
“But there is no real space between us as suggested.”
In a good-humored exchange, Rumsfeld was asked Monday to comment on claims that he and Powell were at odds on foreign policy.
“Are you trying to find some daylight between Colin and me?,” he asked reporters.
Then Rumsfeld was asked by the U.S.-based media if he always agreed with his Cabinet colleague on matters of policy.
To Powell’s evident enjoyment, Rumsfeld, who first served as Defense Secretary under president Gerald Ford in the ’70s, joked: “Well, except for cases where Colin is still learning.”