China-US ties Illustration: Chen Xia/GT
On Monday, Colin Powell, the first black US Secretary of State, died at the age of 84 from complications from COVID-19.
Powell was Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration from January 2001 to May 2005. During that time, relations between China and the United States progressed steadily. In the context of the 9/11 attacks and the US War on Terror, Powell claimed in 2004 that the US relationship with China was the “best” in more than 30 years.
When reviewing Powell’s life, many media outlets cited his role in the US-launched war in Iraq. Notably, during a presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003, he provided fake evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in an attempt to persuade the council to pass a resolution supporting the war on Iraq. Two years later, he said in an interview that it was a “blot” on his record and “painful” for him.
In terms of diplomatic style, Powell was a dovish figure who advocated multilateral diplomacy. However, he has reportedly suggested that the war on Iraq be brought up for discussion within the UN Security Council. He was constrained by the hawks led by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who emphasized unilateralism and military solutions to foreign relations. As a result, he resigned from his position as Secretary of State.
Powell played an important role in China-US relations after the 9/11 attacks. But this is mainly because the US has stepped up cooperation with major powers, including China, due to counter-terrorism demand. This has given Powell more room to develop US foreign policy.
Ultimately, the Bush administration returned to the track of pursuing unilateralism. This was directly related to the US instinct to maintain its hegemonic position. In the logic of hegemonic muscle movements, there is no distinction between pigeons and hawks.
Powell visited China three times during his tenure. China “is a nation that should not be seen as an enemy,” he said during a visit to China in July 2001. When interviewed in 2004 by Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television in Beijing, Powell said: “There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our permanent policy.”
The above stories were seen as a strategic adjustment of the US towards China. In fact, the US adjustment at the time did not mean that the strategic framework of their relations with China had changed.
On September 9, 2004, it was 10 days before the countdown for the 2008 Beijing Olympics started in Tiananmen Square.
On the same day, the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee held testimony in Washington DC on the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. During the testimony, Powell first used the word “genocide.” At that time, Chinese oil companies had already entered Sudan.
Genocide means the deliberate action to destroy a people. Subsequent facts have shown that what happened in Darfur was not genocide at all. Western media sensationalized that more than 1 million people died there. But hard evidence was lacking.
By the definition of the US government, some NGOs in the US have associated the Beijing Olympics with Darfur, calling it the “Olympic Genocides”. They even printed such logos on T-shirts and distributed them everywhere.
In March 2008, the New York Times Magazine asked one of the activists, “Why choose Darfur and why focus on China?” The answer was, “This is the first genocide, since the word was coined, where it was defined by the US government as genocide as it happened.”
In general, when we look at the China-related US policies in which Powell has participated, we can find out what has shaped the direction of China-US relations. These are the structural contradictions that scientists often discuss. They refer to the contradictions defined by the competition between two different systems, civilizations, as well as the established and emerging powers.
Such contradictions have existed in bilateral relations. But they temporarily flew low after the counter-terrorism war became the top US priority after the 9/11 attacks. The contradictions have gradually become more prominent since the flame of the Beijing Olympics was extinguished. This came in the context of China’s rise to become the world’s second largest economy. It has in many ways become a challenge to American hegemony with increasingly apparent political benefits. The core of China-US relations in the future is the same, as I have argued in many of my articles, with regard to this question: how to get out of the framework of structural contradictions or even break them?
The author is a senior editor at People’s Daily and currently a senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina