Friction is brewing in China-U.S. ties Arms, rights, trade pose conflicts

August 27, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Already rough-edged Sino-U.S. relations may be in for more friction.

The U.S. announcement Wednesday of economic sanctions against China for selling missile parts to Pakistan could be just the start of a chain of confrontations between the two nations on arms proliferation, human rights, trade and even China's bid to host the Olympics in 2000.

Underlying the tensions between the world's largest developed nation and its largest developing country is a budding, post-Cold War rivalry shaped by U.S. concerns about China's growing power and Chinese fears of U.S. domination.

As Guo Changlin, a research fellow at Beijing's China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, wrote recently: "The United States is concerned that its sole superpower status will be threatened by the emergence of a new rival. China is concerned that a confident America will pursue new hegemonism and power politics."

Growing economic relations have muffled some of the tensions. The United States is China's largest overseas market, and the Chinese market is of rapidly growing importance to many U.S. industries. U.S. corporate pressure played a major role in the Clinton administration's June decision to renew China's favorable trade status.

But Wednesday's decision on sanctions underscores that, in Sino-U.S. relations, economics is often secondary to politics.

Over the next two years, the sanctions may block as much as $1 billion worth of U.S. high technology exports to China, primarily U.S.-made satellites shipped here for relatively cheap launches by Chinese rockets. U.S. exports to China totaled about $7.5 billion last year.

Hughes Aerospace Co. of Los Angeles already has sold three satellites to Hong Kong and Australian companies for launches in China, and it is likely to be hardest hit by the sanctions. "We're expressing our indignation with what the Chinese are doing by firing a bunch of Americans," Joel Johnson, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, told the Associated Press.

China ultimately may express its own indignation by targeting other U.S. economic interests, but yesterday a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed denials, not threats.

"This is entirely unjustifiable," the spokesman, Wu Jianmin, said of the U.S. sanctions. Mr. Wu did not specifically address whether China, as alleged, supplied M-11 missile parts to Pakistan. But he reiterated that China had not violated the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime, the international arms-control pact that China promised to abide by in 1991.

"Relations between China and the United States have traversed a tortuous course," Mr. Wu said of the last several years of rocky Sino-U.S. relations. "This shows that dialogue is helpful while imposing pressure is useless.

The sanctions, which have been brewing since the United States detected the sales to Pakistan last year, reflect larger U.S. concerns that Chinese arms shipments may play a particularly destabilizing role in the Middle East.

The sanctions were announced as the United States forced a Chinese ship to head for a Saudi port for an inspection to determine whether it is carrying chemical weapons material bound for Iran, as alleged by the United States. China has denied the allegations and is allowing the inspection by a third party.

By contrast, China has been less compliant this summer on U.S. human rights concerns, arresting several Shanghai dissidents and virtually thumbing its nose at the United States by denying a dissident labor leader the right to re-enter China. The labor organizer, Han Dongfang, had only been allowed to leave China because of high-level U.S. pressure.

The relative hardening on human rights has come despite a Chinese public relations offensive geared to China's bid to gain International Olympic Committee approval to be host to the 2000 Olympics. More hardening in disputes with the United States might be expected if China is not chosen as the Olympic venue when the committee votes Sept. 23 -- particularly if China blames opposition in the United States for its failure to bag the games.

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