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STANDOFF WITH CHINA: U.S. AIRCRAFT HELD

China's Position on Capitol Hill Weakening

Congress: Some lawmakers urge rescinding trade ties. Others are canceling trips to nation.

April 06, 2001|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Even if the United States and China manage to resolve their differences soon, the standoff over a collision between two military planes has galvanized American lawmakers hostile to Beijing and tested the goodwill of those open to dealing with the Communist regime.

The fallout for the Chinese government has been heavy on Capitol Hill.

Several lawmakers are rethinking plans to visit China during their two-week spring break. Others are mounting an effort to rescind the U.S. policy of normal trade relations with the world's most populous nation.

Inevitably, the longer the standoff continues, the more it will influence lawmakers who are concerned about other aspects of U.S.-China relations.

For instance, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) introduced promised legislation Thursday to grant citizenship to a Virginia resident, Gao Zhan, who has been held by Chinese authorities as an alleged spy since February. And dozens of lawmakers are pushing sales of advanced naval weaponry to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province.

With so much riding on the U.S.-China relationship, many lawmakers say that even if the current standoff is resolved soon, Beijing will have endangered its political capital on Capitol Hill.

The standoff began Sunday when a U.S. Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided over the South China Sea. The U.S. aircraft landed in southern China, and its 24 crew members were held. The Chinese plane crashed at sea, and its pilot was missing.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, scrubbed a trip to China next week during which he would have discussed a range of issues with high-ranking officials. Shelby said he couldn't engage in such talks when the fate of American military personnel was unresolved.

"I wouldn't know what I would have to discuss that would be anything as important as releasing these people," Shelby said. "So I canceled. It is not business as usual. I believe this impasse between the United States and China is not good for China in any way."

Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the chamber's second-ranking Republican, said he too is canceling a trip to China. Nickles had planned to accompany a group of home-state business leaders to promote trade.

The trips were called off despite a statement by White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer that the Bush administration is not advising lawmakers to avoid traveling to China.

The shift from the mood of a year ago is striking.

Last year at this time, the House of Representatives was moving toward a landmark vote to allow permanent normal trade ties with China. A coalition of free-traders led by the House Republican leadership and a sizable minority of Democrats argued that expanding commerce would benefit U.S. business and help encourage the development of a more open society in China.

The bill, passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President Clinton, cleared a path toward China's entry into the Geneva-based World Trade Organization on terms favorable to many U.S. industries. Negotiations over that final step are continuing.

President Bush has supported the China trade initiative--a position he reiterated Thursday.

A leading proponent of the trade legislation was Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), chairman of the House Rules Committee. Dreier had planned to leave Saturday for Asia on a mission to encourage high-tech business development. On Thursday, it appeared that he would go ahead with the trip but skip a stop in mainland China.

The congressman's spokesman, Richard Mills, said Dreier "is concerned about the effect this situation might have on the larger U.S.-China relationship and trade issues." But he added that Dreier "feels it is important not to rush to recast long-term policies in the heat of the moment."

The statement was a reference to efforts launched this week by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) and others to repeal last year's trade legislation. Those efforts still appear to be a long shot, but they are getting a much wider audience.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a proponent of the trade bill, said Thursday that a reversal of the vote in the House is possible.

"I'm not proposing that that be done," he said. "But it could very easily happen. And the Chinese government ought to make a clear and distinct decision: Do they want to move forward, or do they want these obstacles that put their relationships with other countries, including the United States, in jeopardy?"

Other lawmakers who have been critical of China cautioned against reconsidering U.S. policy because of one incident.

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who last year led an unsuccessful push to give renewed scrutiny to China's role in the spread of nuclear weapons, said that while some lawmakers are concerned about damage to relations, others are angry with the Chinese regime.

But he said: "Most everyone is trying to keep the rhetoric at a minimum, not exacerbate the situation, while our people are being captive."

*

Times staff writers Edwin Chen, James Gerstenzang, Janet Hook and Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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