Saturday, March 20, 1999

When worlds collide

Vexing issues of missile defense,
trade imbalance and Taiwan may have
China on collision course with U.S.

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin


It has been a winter of discontent in United States relations with China and the outlook for spring is not much better with the possible exception of military-to-military connections and even those have potential strains.

American dealings with China have been in a swirl in recent weeks.

A U.S. allegation that China had stolen American nuclear secrets generated vehement denials from Beijing, Premier Zhu Rongji calling it "a tale from the Arabian nights." A Pentagon analysis of China's military buildup produced a Chinese retort that it was no concern of the United States.Allegations of an illicit transfer of U.S. technology to China have rumbled across Capitol Hill.

Illustration By David Swann, Star-Bulletin

U.S. complaints about Chinese abuse of human rights led to tart Chinese demands that Americans look to their own backyards. Visits of high-level Americans to Beijing, with more coming, and the prospective visit of Chinese Premier Zhu to Washington next month have done little to calm the waters.

These gyrations have tended to obscure two fundamental reasons for the aggravation:

Bullet Beijing seems intent on reviving the ancient concept of the Middle Kingdom in which China dominates Asia and no major decision is made anywhere in the region without Beijing's approval. That design permits no place for the United States in Asia.

Bullet President Clinton and his associates have had no coherent policy toward China since they have been in office and have been swaying like willows in the wind for six years. Only the Defense Department has shown consistency, with limited results.

In sum, the downward spiral of Sino-American relations suggests that it is not premature to speculate on whether the two nations are on a collision course. What path that might take is unclear but neither Chinese leaders nor the Clinton administration seems to be doing anything to avert the danger.

At the moment, the billowing conflict is focused on three issues even as lesser skirmishes flare up: Theater missile defense, a growing imbalance in trade and the future of the island of Taiwan, which is an independent nation in all but name.

Dispute over missile defense

American military commanders in the Pacific are eager to have a defensive system of sensors, computers and anti-missile batteries such as Patriot to protect American bases, ships and allies against a spreading threat from medium range missiles.

The new commander of American forces in the Pacific and Asia, Adm. Dennis Blair, told a congressional committee earlier this month that "the theater missile defense program is the top of my priority list."

An advanced version of the Patriot was tested successfully this week. The Congress authorized a plan to develop an anti-missile system to defend the United States itself.

The Chinese, however, have vigorously demanded that the system, known as TMD, not be deployed because it would render nearly obsolete its considerable rocket forces. Beijing has protested even more strongly against the possibility that Taiwan would be included along with Japan and South Korea. A Chinese spokes-man was quoted as saying Taiwan's participation would be "the last straw" that would disrupt Sino-American relations.

On trade, the large deficit the U.S. is running in its balance with China is on a par with the deficit in U.S. trade with Japan.

United States Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky lamented to an audience in New York last January that "our phenomenal trade deficit with China (is) now over $1 billion per week."

A spokesman for the USTR said the deficit had grown by 20 percent a year for five years.

Tension over Taiwan

As for Taiwan, Chinese leaders have repeatedly warned that they are free to use military force to conquer Taiwan, which they consider to be a breakaway province. The U.S. has sought to dissuade them and left open the possibility that the U.S. would come to Taiwan's aid after an unprovoked attack. To abandon Taiwan in that case would call into question every U.S. treaty and defense commitment in Asia.

An intriguing twist to the Taiwan question is in the making with former President Jimmy Carter scheduled to visit Taipei next month. It was President Carter who switched U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the same year Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act that governs the quasi-diplomatic relations of the U.S. with Taiwan.

Carter has been invited by a private think tank with close ties to the Taiwanese government and is almost certain to meet with Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui.That may well draw another strong protest from Beijing, which objects to anything that appears to convey a sense of legitimacy to the government in Taiwan.

Human rights discord

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright started off the current round in Sino-American relations when she gave the Chinese a tongue-lashing at a January reception in the Chinese embassy."Peaceful political expression is not a crime or a threat," she said. "It is a right that is universally recognized and fundamental to the freedom and dignity of every human being." Albright repeated those sentiments during her visit to Beijing earlier this month.

Many members of Congress have grown wary of the administration's handling of China but in this case have pushed President Clinton to go further. The House of Representatives voted 410-0 last week to urge the president to seek a United Nations resolution that would condemn China for abusing human rights. In late February, the Senate passed a similar resolution, 99-0.

A USTR spokesman said that Barshefsky complained about the trade imbalance to Chinese leaders during her visit to Beijing earlier this month, evidently without visible effect. The Clinton administration, in its "engagement policy" with Beijing, has made trade concessions but has so far not been able to get the Chinese to redress the trade imbalance.

Then, in April, trade will be high on the agenda when Premier Zhu goes to Washington. Zhu told the annual National People's Congress last week that the economy was in "disarray," financial discipline was "lax," and market demand was "feeble."

Zhu could be counted on to use those arguments with the Clinton administration as Beijing seeks to gain entry to the World Trade Organization as a developing nation.The U.S. and other industrial nations are eager to see China in the WTO but as a developed nation subject to the same trading rules that apply to them.

Military dialogue is open

Only on the military front has the U.S. made progress with the Chinese. First, the United States has sought to assure Chinese military leaders that the U.S. does not seek to contain China. Second, the U.S. has sought to deter the Chinese by making plain that their forces would suffer devastating defeat if Beijing chose to engage the U.S. in hostilities.

Thus the United States has invited 250 senior Chinese officers to U.S. bases over the last three years. This year, according to the Pentagon, they will watch a mass drop of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, visit a ballistic missile submarine base, observe tank crews training in the California desert, and attend seminars on medicine, logistics and flight safety.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who plans to visit China in mid-April, is not entirely happy with China's response. Cohen told correspondents in Hawaii several weeks ago that "we expect complete reciprocity in our dealings with the Chinese government." He also indicated he would repeat cautions he delivered last year, when he told the Chinese not to miscalculate on U.S. military power and resolve.

Blair, who also plans to visit China soon, was equally to the point in testimony before the congressional committee. "We're not sitting here dying to pick a fight with China," he said. "We'll support American interests if we have to, but don't mess with us."

Richard Halloran is a freelance
writer based in Honolulu.

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