October 28, 2002

JIANG ZEMIN, head of the Chinese military, government and Communist Party, finally got the imprimatur of a visit to President Bush's Texas ranch on Friday, a summit underscoring gains in relations since Mr. Jiang was anointed China's paramount leader in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It's been a rocky 13 years, but as Mr. Jiang is about to give up at least some of his posts, China and the United States have grown ever more intertwined and, for the moment, their long-term, problematic rivalry is on the back burner.

To that end, the alarming North Korean claim that it has joined the world's nuclear club further aligns Sino-U.S. interests. Just as with the U.S.-led war in Central Asia, this new U.S. problem presents another chance for the Chinese -- who used to boast of "lips and teeth" relations with the North Koreans -- to demonstrate they can wield power responsibly in their neighborhood. For China, this one is a lot easier than its bowing in the United Nations to a U.S. military invasion of Iraq, since it clearly doesn't want a nuclear Korea any more than the United States.

In such times of coinciding diplomatic interests -- and even in periods of conflict, such as at the depths of China's post-Tiananmen isolation -- Sino-U.S. relations are buttressed by a growing economic dependence, driven by the symbiotic lusts of American business for cheap labor and of China for export markets. It was predictable that Mr. Jiang's visit was preceded by a new rash of big, cross-Pacific deals.

America now annually imports more than $100 billion worth of goods from China, more than double the amount a decade ago and the source of an $80 billion yearly trade deficit; Wal-Mart alone accounts for more than $10 billion of this. Total U.S. direct investment in China now tops $30 billion.

U.S. businesses and many analysts argue this is all for the good, a force inexorably opening China via growing links to the rest of the world. But at the same time, China's avowed drive to build its wealth and military power -- looking toward the day when it would contend more equally with U.S. dominance -- cannot be ignored.

A congressional security review commission this summer warned that the rapidly widening Sino-U.S. trade gap was funding a widely underestimated Chinese military buildup and providing advanced technology transfers that could come back someday to haunt the United States economically and militarily. The United States, the commission urged, must begin seriously tracking this transfer of resources.

So, as cooperative as China has been of late, that doesn't change the Chinese leadership's stance that China is engaged in a long-term, growing rivalry with the United States. From this side of the Pacific, it's also hard to argue with that view. Right now, for its own development, China needs a stable world. But long after the threats from the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il pass, this mammoth presence very likely will be richer, more powerful and more intent on not kowtowing to U.S. interests.

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