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Foes of Trade Gain Strength as China Delays Solution

April 11, 2001|JOSEPH A. BOSCO | Joseph A. Bosco teaches a graduate seminar in China-Taiwan relations at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service

Once again, China's Communist leadership is proving remarkably adept at cutting off its nose to spite its face. Despite repeated warnings from President Bush and other administration officials, it continues to damage relations with the United States, and its own economic future, by holding our personnel and aircraft hostage.

Doubtless, Beijing is reaping an intelligence windfall and domestic propaganda bonanza by its hard-line approach to the midair accident. But, on a host of bilateral issues, China is already paying a price for its aggressive aerobatics and diplomacy, and the price becomes disproportionately higher each hour those men and women and that plane are held.

* WTO/PNTR: On Sunday's talk shows, two influential Senate committee chairmen, who last year supported China's entry into the World Trade Organization and permanent normal trade relations with the U.S., said they would reconsider their position when PNTR comes back for a new vote. Moreover, the coalition of liberals, progressives and conservatives who opposed PNTR is now gearing up for a new battle. The longer the Beijing-manufactured crisis goes on, the more congressional votes will switch from pro-PNTR to anti-China. Meanwhile, congressional delegations and business groups prepared to encourage greater bilateral trade are canceling or postponing visits to China.

* Trade tariffs and boycotts: China's trade surplus with the U.S. helps pay for the military modernization that increasingly threatens U.S. interests in Asia. Congress and the American public may decide to stop subsidizing Chinese hostility by reversing the momentum toward free trade and imposing punitive duties and restrictions on China's exports.

* U.S. arms sales to Taiwan: At a Georgetown University conference last week, several speakers agreed with the Bush administration that it should decide which weapons systems to sell Taiwan purely on the merits of the island's defensive needs vis a vis the mainland. They noted, however, that perception of the nature of that threat, both in Taipei and Washington, can be significantly affected by Beijing's handling of the evolving crisis. U.S. reconnaissance of China's coast has increased, after all, because of the mounting official threats against Taiwan--and the U.S.--emanating from Beijing's military and political leaders, backed by a dramatic buildup of Chinese missiles targeted at Taiwan.

* China's Olympic bid: Beijing has made winning the bid and hosting the 2008 Olympics the crowning glory of its arrival as a major player on the world scene. It dearly wants to showcase the significant economic progress it has made over the last two decades and to erase much of the international stigma generated by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It also wants to undo the damage to China's international image when the Olympic Committee rejected its bid for the 2004 games because of its blemished human rights record.

But, true to form, Beijing has raised that issue again with its ham-handed crackdown on the Falun Gong movement and political dissidents. Its exploitation of the Hainan incident highlights the Communist leadership's disregard for international law and humanitarian norms.

* The presidential visit to China: President Bush is already scheduled to attend the Asia-Pacific economic meeting in Shanghai in October, and he had agreed in principle to meet with Jiang Zemin in Beijing afterward. But Jiang's harsh demand for an American apology and his dismissive departure on a prolonged foreign tour without resolving the impasse effectively left the U.S. president twisting in the wind, with our crew and plane unreleased. The duration and outcome of the crisis may result in reconsideration of the Bush travel plans.

* The U.N. human rights meeting in Geneva: The administration supports a resolution condemning China's human rights record. The Clinton administration did the same at previous U.N. sessions but never seriously lobbied other countries to get a majority vote. Washington's commitment to bring China to international account could intensify.

* The long-term China-U.S. relationship: The developing crisis has already revived negative images of China in the American public, the media and Congress. Even scholars and businessmen who have long favored the engagement policy either express their own second thoughts or worry that anti-China sentiment will build among others. Unless the standoff is resolved very soon, with the unconditional release of the personnel and aircraft, it has the potential to set back bilateral relations at least as profoundly as the Tiananmen episode did a dozen years ago. The difference this time is that U.S. citizens and security interests are the targets of Beijing's aggressive conduct.

Old China hands often caution U.S. policymakers that treating China like an enemy will make it one. Chinese leaders would do well to consider the reverse of that admonition, but with each passing hour, they are poisoning the well of future relations.

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