China Comes Calling on Washington

China Comes Calling on Washington

But should Asia be the one crying for help?

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- Exaggeration has long been the unfortunate hallmark of the U.S.-China relationship. It's either on the knife-edge of confrontation or edging toward the tender embrace of alliance. Neither extreme is realistic; but in Washington right now both, in fact, are the fashion.

These days the binocular vision breaks down pretty much on branch lines. For the U.S. executive, the relationship on the whole has never been better. The Chinese are cooperating in the anti-terror campaign, playing nice at the U.N. Security Council and working hard to keep North Korea glued to the six-party peace talks hosted in Beijing.

Hence, this week, you'll see mainly cozy warmth on the official smiles-and-hugs travelogue to Washington of China's No. 2: Premier Wen Jiabao.

For the legislative branch, though, China is mostly a maze of duplicity. The government’s Machiavellian currency manipulations which aggressively under-price its exports have the effect of rendering uncompetitive the domestic products of hard-working Americans, especially in textiles. The consequence is a yawning trade deficit that teeters over America like a
$100 billion leaning tower of Beijing.

The two branches are also split over the Taiwan issue. For Congress, pressured by the brilliant Taiwan lobby, the operative norm is the decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, which allows for U.S. arms to bolster Taiwan's defense (and thus replenish the coffers of defense-industry campaign contributors). But for the Republican White House, the operative norm is the Shanghai Accords and other diplomatic agreements (originating with the Nixon administration) that commit the U.S. government to a one-China policy in which Taiwan's status is officially unofficial.

While U.S. policy toward China remains mired in binocular vision, significant policy reorientation is in the works in Beijing. Emblematic is the visiting Wen, who provided President George W. Bush, when they met at the White House Tuesday (Dec. 9), with his first face-to-face with a top member of the new government that took power only earlier this year.

Again, this is not the same old, same old government. Pointedly abandoning its predecessor's disciplined focus on economic development, it expresses deep concerns about raging unemployment and rural unrest in China. This is both good news and bad.

The good news is that Beijing will attack that problem from the left -- with long-overdue unemployment and retraining efforts, as well as some income redistribution into the countryside.

The bad news is that -- from the right -- it may need to whip up nationalist resentment against Taiwan separatists, such as the island's President Chen Shui-bian, to keep the lid on social unrest. Already a top Beijing official has warned, "War will break out if the island declares independence."

Chen won't go that far in order to get reelected in March, but he will push the George Washington envelope as far as he can. Let's cross our fingers that he has taken the measure of Beijing's political patience with microscopic precision.

An equivalent degree of manipulation and cynicism prevails across the Taiwan Strait, to be sure. Up to a finely calibrated point, Hu and Wen will exploit Chen's political dramaturgy by offering its masses the opium of ultra-nationalism. China, it must always be remembered, is a work in progress. It is not by any means as settled a deal as, say, Italy. But China, at worst, is no more than a mild threat to the United States, at least for the foreseeable future.

In truth, it is more of a difficult dilemma for Asia.

"The U.S. trade deficit with China is getting all the headlines," notes Los Angeles-based economist Donald Straszheim of Straszheim Global Advisors. "But the real threat is less to America than to the Asian 'tigers' that can't compete."

Those tigers include Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. Their economies are dependent on export sales. But over the long run, how can their exports possibly hope to compete against China, with its endless supply of cheap labor? And how many Western manufacturers will locate a plant anywhere in Asia besides China, with a huge labor force that's increasingly skilled and energetic?

Accordingly, the ire of the U.S. Congress about Chinese exports strikes informed Asians as pathetically misdirected and irritatingly self-centered. The reality is that American exports to China are rising faster than American imports from China -- which in any event serves as one gigantic national discount house for eager U.S. customers, who, Congress might note, can always choose to buy higher priced goods if they deem lower cost ones a threat to U.S. national security.

It's our Asian friends ­ including even Japan, Taiwan and South Korea -- that have far more reason to be worried about the Chinese economic challenge. If Congress wants something to bluster about, it might focus on Asia's need to play both sides of the street in the U.S.-versus-China loyalty game. Before too long, the way things are going, Asia will prefer not to be asked: Whose side are you on?

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Tom Plate is a professor of Policy and Communication Studies at UCLA. He is a regular columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, the South China Morning Post, The Straits Times and the Honolulu Advertiser. He is a member of the World Economic Forum, and the Pacific Council on International policy. The author of five books, he has worked at TIME, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail of London. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003.

For publication and reprint rights, contact Tom Plate at tplate@ucla.edu or John Simpson (john.simpson@latsi.com) of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.