Kings of the East

September 1, 2005 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Asia Tags: MuslimSuperpowerYugoslavia

Kings of the East

Mini Teaser: Bush's realist head and voter's evangelical hearts are taking him in two different directions on China.

by Author(s): Christopher Marsh

The recent passage of China's anti-secession law has raised fears in Washington and Taipei that Beijing may use the legislation to declare war on Taiwan. For some fundamentalist Christians, this is just a further sign of the End Times. According to a Time/CNN poll, 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies in the Book of Revelation will come true, a number that is on the rise following 9/11. Among those that seek to interpret the prophecies, China is seen as a major player in the events that will usher in the apocalypse. As interpreted by Irvin Baxter--pastor, novelist and editor of Endtime magazine, which has a readership exceeding 150,000--the Book of Revelation foretells a coming nuclear war between the United States and China. As recounted in his The China War and the Third Temple (2001), China will initiate a nuclear attack against Los Angeles in response to America's interference in China's "rightful claims to the Island of Taiwan." While a work of fiction, this novel reveals how Baxter "envisions world events to play out based on his understanding of endtime Bible prophecy" and "is his view of how events will play out in the near future." And it is clearly understood that way by his many readers who take the Book of Revelation as a prophecy of the end of the world.

When discussing the many factors that comprise the U.S. decision calculus in its policy toward China, one area that must not be overlooked is the role of religion. Whether it be the role of religious interest groups, President Bush's own Christian faith or the promotion of religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy objective--and these are clearly not unrelated issues--the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy toward China complicates relations, especially over Taiwan.

Ideals and Interests

The United States cannot afford a major conflict with China while still working to establish democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor as long as it must cope with other pressing issues on the horizon, such as a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea. The best policy for the moment is therefore to continue what David Lampton called the "stealth normalization" of U.S.-Chinese relations.1 While stealth normalization is very much a realist approach to managing the U.S.-Chinese relationship, it faces a real challenge in the idealistic commitment of the United States to promoting democracy, human rights and religious freedom around the world. Democracy promotion is viewed with great suspicion in China and is seen as a cover for a policy of regime change. Chinese leaders see it as part of an overall American strategy that they refer to as "peaceful evolution" (heping yanbian), where the United States seeks to promote Western-style political and economic systems across the globe, based upon what are labeled "Western" conceptions of individualism and personal freedom. The constant monitoring of religious freedom in China and the pressure exerted to respect religious liberty thus appear to leaders in Beijing not simply as unwelcome meddling in their domestic affairs but as part of a larger plot to eventually overthrow their system of governance.

China and the Evangelicals

While premillennialist Christians such as Baxter and his readership are not President's Bush's largest support base, he does rely quite heavily on the Christian Right in general, many of whom share similar views of China's "godless communists." Included here are public figures such as Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, a one-time and perhaps future presidential candidate, who publicly stated that "China should be a disfavored nation in every aspect of American foreign policy." Bush and other U.S. policymakers, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), have brought religion to the forefront of U.S.-Chinese relations, partly due to the influence of these and other American religious groups. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to Bush's February 2002 visit to China, which marked the thirtieth anniversary of Nixon's historic visit, many groups, including the Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China, lobbied to have religious freedom issues pushed high on Bush's agenda.

Many of these groups also fear China's growing military potential, tending to agree with the writings of Bill Gertz and Constantine Menges, whose book details how China "targets America" and "is steadily pursuing a stealthy, systematic strategy to attain geopolitical and economic dominance" of the globe. Military-strategic concerns also play a central role in Baxter's novel, which glorifies the Strategic Defense Initiative ("if only we had built the Star Wars missile defense system when President Reagan had wanted to") and praises Bush's missile defense program (which protects many American cities from nuclear annihilation in the book), while condemning the Clinton Administration for not having done more to restrain China back in 1996, when Beijing hissed at President Lee's characterization of cross-strait relations as state-to-state relations.

In the run-up to his presidency, Bush and his foreign policy team appeared prepared to pursue a strategy toward China in line with these views, intending a sharp break with the China apologists of the Clinton Administration. Condoleezza Rice noted that China was a "strategic competitor, not the 'strategic partner' the Clinton administration once called it."2 The future deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, wrote in these pages in 2000 that "China's growing strength will pose challenges to the United States, its allies and its friends."3 Bush's first foreign policy challenge seemed to affirm his advisors' stance. The collision of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft with a Chinese fighter jet off the coast of Hainan on April 1, 2001, and the resulting difficult negotiations he faced in order to secure the return of the aircraft and its crew, confirmed in his mind the tough stance he would need to take with China.

The events of 9/11, however, forced a major reassessment. Rather than looking for potential enemies, America's true enemies had made themselves readily apparent, and what was needed was nothing less than a crusade--a term the president used only once, but a very telling choice of words it was. As David Lampton pointed out, the president had slid all the way from his campaign formulations of China as a strategic competitor to dropping the competitor formulation altogether, adding that "America wants a constructive relationship with China."4

A Man of Faith

Throughout the history of U.S.-Chinese relations, religion has played a central role--from the early days when America saw China as part of its great civilizing mission and sent scores of missionaries to spread the Gospel, to the renewed attempts to evangelize that became possible with China's policy of "reform and opening" begun in 1978. At no point in the recent past has religion figured more prominently in U.S.-Chinese relations, however, than under President George W. Bush, a leader who holds the promotion of religious freedom as an issue dear to his heart and who is quite public about his own personal faith.

An evangelical Christian who had a "born again" experience in 1986, Bush clearly sees the world through a religious lens, and this impacts everything from his domestic agenda to his conduct of American foreign policy. As Stephen Mansfield put it in The Faith of George W. Bush (2003), "If the presidency is a 'bully pulpit' as Teddy Roosevelt claimed, no one in recent memory has pounded that pulpit for religion's role in government quite like the forty-third president."

While President Bush's religious convictions are most clear when it comes to his domestic agenda, his personal faith also surely shapes the way he views the rest of the world. Aside from the Christian language President Bush often purposefully uses, his mistakes and unintentional statements are perhaps more telling. When the president mistakenly referred to Greeks as Grecians, he was ridiculed in the media for his error, with some speculating that he got the word from the popular hair-coloring product. But the truth is more revealing; as anyone familiar with the King James version of the Bible knows, Greeks are often referred to as Grecians in that translation.

His immediate response to the 9/11 attacks is also telling, as he relied upon a religious frame of reference, referring to our retaliation as a "crusade" against the "jihad" launched by the terrorists, a wording he quickly changed. Nevertheless, Bush's proclivity is to frame the War on Terror as a conflict between good and evil (which is naturally interpreted by religious believers as between the children of light and the children of darkness, to use Reinhold Niebuhr's terms). The president's Christianity, therefore, is not just rhetoric; it shapes his view of the world.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Randall Schriver maintains that President Bush "is deeply and personally concerned over the state of religious freedom in China, and he has raised his concerns in his meetings with Chinese leaders." Shortly after the April 2001 spy plane incident, President Bush used the occasion to attack China on its religion policies. Vowing to make religious liberty "a guiding doctrine of our foreign policy", Bush sternly warned China that its persecution of religious believers would thwart its great power aspirations, no matter how successful it was in developi and acquiring advanced military technologies.

Essay Types: Essay