China policy: build bridges or new walls?

March 21, 2001|By Louise Branson

WASHINGTON --President Bush's administration is building a new Great Wall: one between the United States and China.

"Hosing down China with acid," was how a China expert summed up the initial approach. Mr. Bush's father, a former U.S. envoy to Beijing, is often referred to in China as "lao pangyo" (old friend). But it doesn't seem to run in the family.

Or does it?

What we are seeing and hearing is not necessarily the definitive shape of the Sino-American relationship. Mr. Bush sounds a lot like Bill Clinton, now criticized for being a China softie, when he became president in 1993.

On the face of it, Mr. Bush and his top foreign policy advisers sound hostile. Secretary of State Colin Powell had barely moved into his new office when he called in the Chinese ambassador to complain about Chinese human rights abuses, including the repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. A State Department report had harsher words.

The United States also plans to sponsor a protest of China's crackdown at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva this month.

There's more: Top Asia jobs in the administration are being filled with people who focus on Japan or the broader Asian region rather than China specialists. China is furious. But Mr. Bush says he wants more attention paid to Japan and other regional friends who were "neglected" by President Clinton.

So is China destined to become the new Soviet Union-style enemy, headed for serious confrontation?

Early "get-tough-with-China" rhetoric has become so much a rite of passage for American presidents it could almost be written into the job description. The reason: domestic politics.

Two important constituencies need to be placated: the far right and the far left.

The Republican right is concerned about security and defense issues. It has had China at the center of its radar screen since late last year when the Pentagon warned that China will emerge as a hostile military and economic power in 20 years.

The Pentagon report raised the specter that China could become a dominant, unfriendly force in Asia much as Germany was in Europe in the early part of the last century.

The left is concerned about human rights abuses. Unions fear U.S. companies will move to China to take advantage of cheaper labor.

Small surprise that Mr. Bush has bowed to these concerns as he formulates his first approach. It also helps his arguments for building a missile defense shield.

The long-term prognosis will only become clear as reality tempers ideology and good intentions, beginning today as Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen opens his official visit to the United States.

Mr. Bush is not the only one building the new Great Wall. He has been matched with anti-American blasts from China's leaders. Besides scorning America's social ills, the Chinese have ratcheted up their talk of possible war with Taiwan because of planned U.S. military sales of Aegis destroyers to the island that China claims.

Beneath the insults, however, some fundamentals are more indicative that the "constructive engagement" approach of Mr. Bush's father is working at a deeper level.

The most important is that China is on the verge of being admitted to the World Trade Organization after 15 years of trying. An important precursor to this was the agreement by Congress last summer to give China permanent trade partner status, not making it dependent on a yearly review of its human rights record.

U.S. trade opportunities in China cannot be underestimated. If China joins the WTO and sticks to its rules, it will have to slash tariffs and open sectors of the economy that long have been off-limits to foreigners, such as banking and telecommunications.

American businesses would like to take full advantage of what could in the next few decades become the world's second largest economy. Mr. Bush is keenly aware of the importance of business. He is also a recipient of many big business contributions.

Both sides for now are playing hardball. But that new Great Wall may be more fragile than it now seems. With time, the Chinese might get to call both Presidents Bush "lao pengyo."

Louise Branson is a former Beijing correspondent for the SundayTimes of London. She is now a free-lance writer based in Washington.

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