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US starts to accommodate the emerging influence of China

December 23, 2004

By Guy Dinmore, Financial Times
Published: Dec 23, 2004

“Rocky times” is how a senior US official describes the state of play with China over the contentious issue of Taiwan. Meanwhile, news on the human rights front is mostly negative, and America’s politically sensitive trade deficit with China grows ever larger.

In other respects, China is perceived by critics in the US as a growing rival for energy resources, spreading its presence into the Middle East and, more recently, Latin America.

Seen as a useful but rather passive mediator over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, China itself remains a cause for concern over weapons proliferation, particularly in Iran, where the US has slapped sanctions on numerous Chinese entities suspected of helping the Islamic regime’s missile development.

Put together, influential Washington neo-conservatives see these trends as lending weight to their longstanding argument that China will present the greatest strategic threat to US dominance of a “unipolar” world. Those voices were drowned out by the impact of al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11 2001, when the focus of fear switched to the Islamic world and alliances of convenience became the order of the day.

The Bush administration finds itself having to defend its relationship with China, however, before a relatively aggressive Congress and the mainly pro-Taiwan lobby of the neo-conservatives.

Overall, a senior State Department official insists, there has been progress in the relationship, backing the oft repeated assertion of Colin Powell, secretary of state, that Sino-US relations have never been so good.

“It’s three steps forward, a couple back,” the official said, arguing that China is behaving better on the issue of proliferation and has come a long way in deciding to take a significant role in mediating with North Korea.

It would not be in US interests to impede China’s progress in becoming a big political and economic player in the world, the official told the FT. Moreover, the best prospects for human rights in China were also to be found in continuing economic development.

His remarks reflect the views of the “supply chain” theorists – that the growing economic interdependency of the US and China would trump any moves towards conflict. The US trade deficit with China exceeded $130bn (€97bn, £67bn) in the first 10 months of this year, while China has become the second biggest buyer of US debt after Japan.

The senior official says he doubts there will be a full-scale review of policy towards China under Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser who is set to succeed Mr Powell in the second Bush administration.

But he admits the US is not happy that China has decided to go ahead with its “anti-secession” law, aimed at blunting Taiwanese aspirations for independence, despite the December 11 parliamentary election victory of the relatively pro-China opposition in Taiwan.

“It’s going to vitiate the positive effects, if there are any of the Taiwanese elections,” he said, indicating that the Bush administration was not displeased that President Chen Shuibian’s party suffered a setback.

Perhaps of more concern to the US is that President George W. Bush, who values the relationship he has developed with the Chinese leadership, was not told about the proposed law when he met President Hu Jintao in Chile last month.

Harvey Feldman, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation who spent 18 years as a US diplomat in Asia, says the US is paying the price for too conciliatory an approach towards China, getting too little in return for “reining in” Taiwan.

“China is going out of its way to stick its thumb in the US collective eye,” he said, citing developments over Iran as an example.

The US official concedes that China has played a role in blocking US attempts to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council for sanctions over its failure to abide by its nuclear safeguards commitments.

“The basic strategic thrust of China is to limit American influence,” Mr Feldman says. “Iran is a nice sandbox for them to play in for that.”

Elizabeth Economy of the independent Council on Foreign Relations says Mr Bush has to fend off his rightwing critics and not make the mistake of returning to “China-bashing and to a strategy of containment”.

Yet, she says, while Mr Bush and Mr Hu have established a framework for discussions, the reality is that the US has a limited impact on China. In its quest for increased global influence, China “no longer needs the United States to support its engagement in the international community”.

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