Building a Bridge to China

Times Staff Writer

The United States is preparing to open a new diplomatic front in its increasingly complex relationship with China in an effort to reduce the danger of a major miscalculation between the two giants.

Unlike current contacts that focus on specific economic, political and security issues, the new dialogue will seek to look at U.S.-China relations in a larger framework, a recognition of Beijing’s growing importance.

Senior State Department officials say they hope the new channel will develop into a deeper level of engagement, one that will be more conversation than negotiation, that builds trust and offers a chance to study the broader implications of specific issues that have turned Sino-U.S. ties into one of America’s most challenging international relationships.

“We want to try to get people to look across issues and see their interrelationships -- whether its foreign and security policy or economic, trade, finance or energy,” Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick said in an interview.


For the Bush administration, the new talks reflect a conviction that it needs to do more to address the implications of China’s rapid emergence in the four years since America was hit by the Sept. 11 attacks, then occupied with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The talks also come as anti-China sentiments are rising in Congress, driven by worries about Beijing’s expanding economic might, its growing trade surplus with the U.S. and a steady military buildup that has unsettled America’s defense planners. Some lawmakers believe that, far from solidifying its engagement strategy, the United States should begin to confront China.

“The general feeling is we’re headed into a rough patch,” said Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a China scholar at Georgetown University.

Zoellick, known and respected by the Chinese during his job as U.S. trade representative during President Bush’s first term, has been named to head an American delegation, while Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo will lead China’s delegation. The inaugural two-day meeting of the new dialogue, scheduled in Beijing early next month, is expected to focus mainly on setting up the new process.


The stakes in adjusting effectively to China’s emergence as a major power could hardly be higher.

Although U.S.-China ties lack the immediacy of America’s struggle to reshape the Middle East, foreign affairs specialists contend that “getting China right” may be far more critical to the nation’s long-term future. Few events carry more danger to an existing world order than the emergence of a major new power, as history proved with the rise of Germany and Japan in the last century.

“There’s no reason to believe we are any smarter today than the policymakers who ‘mismanaged’ the rise of Germany and Japan,” former State Department official and political commentator Robert Kagan concluded in a recent article published in the Washington Post on the challenge of China’s emergence.

Some of those outside the administration who are tracking U.S.-China relations applaud the new dialogue as a positive step.

“What the administration is doing is critically necessary,” said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a member of the House International Relations Committee, who recently visited China. “China will rise with or without the U.S., so the real question is if the U.S. can also prosper and if it can play a constructive role in creating an environment where China can cooperate on common interests.”

Some U.S.-China specialists see the broad format of the dialogue as a chance for the United States to clarify its overall stance toward China, that it is receptive to Beijing’s emergence so long as it accepts and works within the existing order.

“Our goal is to see the rise of a China that is a positive force in international politics,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week during a stop in Beijing.

It is a message that has frequently been lost in the blur of Beijing’s myriad contacts with a variety of U.S. government agencies and the jumble of American responses.


China’s appetite for buying U.S. Treasury bills helps America sustain its huge budget deficit, and China’s low-cost goods are a godsend to budget-minded American families. But China is viewed much differently at the Defense Department and the CIA, where its military buildup and accelerating global reach are ranked among the most serious potential threats to the United States’ security.

“You talk to the Pentagon and the Treasury about China, and it’s like they have two different countries in mind,” said Pei Minxin, an expert on the Sino-U.S. relationship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “This administration must learn to send an unambiguous signal to China.”

Still, consistency isn’t easy in such a broad, often contradictory, relationship.

Politically, China has been supportive of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, has cooperated in the struggle to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and has worked with the United States to get North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions. Yet that same China is an awesome trade juggernaut that targets U.S. companies for takeover and is viewed by many worried Americans as a threat to their jobs and way of life.

Beijing also has begun to challenge America’s long-standing dominance in East Asia and now competes globally with the United States for oil and other natural resources. Militarily, the fast-modernizing People’s Liberation Army looms as a potentially formidable adversary should war break out over Taiwan, an island democracy claimed by China that Bush has pledged to defend.

Elevated to the role of strategic partner during the Clinton years, China was initially called a strategic competitor by the Bush administration, which later declared the relationship too complicated for shorthand labels. It is a position U.S. officials still cite.

Officially, the U.S. “welcomes the rise of a confident, peaceful and prosperous China,” Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, testified last month before Congress. U.S. officials have encouraged Beijing to play an active role in supporting shared interests.

“It has never been the policy of the U.S. to restrict or contain China,” senior State Department Asia specialist Evans J.R. Revere said at an international conference here two months ago.


The administration has worked to isolate areas of Sino-U.S. tension to prevent them from infecting the larger relationship. But as China’s power grows, containing the friction points becomes harder.

The mood on Capitol Hill is one measure of a growing national nervousness about China. Bills are pending in both chambers to impose punitive 27.5% tariffs on Beijing if it doesn’t immediately increase the value of the Chinese yuan, a move that would diminish what lawmakers claim is China’s unfair export advantage.

Amid these complaints, the China National Offshore Oil Co.'s announced $18.5-billion takeover bid for California-based Unocal last month triggered an explosion of protest in Congress that included accusations that the move posed a grave national security threat.

“It’s part of a long-term strategy for domination,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) said in a telephone interview.

Two weeks earlier, the California lawmaker opposed U.S. government support for American companies who were part of a Westinghouse consortium bidding to build nuclear power plants in China.

“The greatest threat to our freedom, the greatest threat to America’s prosperity, is not radical Islam,” he said, but “a China that is emerging on the scene that is belligerent to everything we stand for as a people.”

Some members of Congress, including Rohrabacher, interpret the recent developments as part of a sea change in congressional thinking that will eventually force the administration to give up its engagement strategy and begin to challenge China.

“It will be based on a consensus between Republicans and Democrats who are not buying the WTO, pro-China rhetoric that we’ve heard,” Rohrabacher said, referring to past congressional assent for Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization.

Others disagree.

“There’s too much hysterics and too little logic in the current debate,” Wexler said. “The economic future of China is now tied to that of the United States. In this context, both sides need to be mature and prudent.” Wexler and others contend that some of the proposed punitive measures pending in Congress could end up hurting the U.S. more than China.

For example, many economists argue that imposing punitive tariffs on China’s imports would not bring back jobs to American shores, but would push up the price of consumer goods in the U.S.

Derek Mitchell, a former Defense Department East Asia specialist now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, expressed concern that emotions on both sides could quickly spin out of control. The new U.S.-China diplomatic channel, Mitchell suggested, could be useful in building greater confidence.

“I think they have to talk about security strategies and global issues, [including] energy, infectious diseases, maybe a discussion on terrorism, and things like intellectual property rights and currency,” he said. “It’s a very good thing.”