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China steps out

April 23, 2006

TO THE MORE PROTECTIONIST and reactionary elements of Congress, China is King Kong poised to crush New York. That's why Chinese President Hu Jintao spent most of last week's visit to the United States trying to soothe American fears and point out that his nation is really more like Bambi.

"China's development will not compromise the interests of anyone, nor will China's development threaten anyone," Hu told an audience at Yale University on Friday, the last day of his visit. That's a bit hyperbolic, but for the most part, Hu's surprisingly frank comments on the nature of the China-U.S. relationship were correct. China, whose economy is dwarfed by that of the United States, is nowhere near the threat that too many in Washington claim.

It's true that China is something of a toddler King Kong on a steady diet of giant bananas. It's also true that its thirst for oil threatens U.S. energy interests, and its fast development brings about rising emissions that are rapidly accelerating the onset of global warming. But in many ways its growth is causing its interests to align with those of the United States, and economically the two nations are so intertwined that rising prosperity for one benefits the other -- while a downturn would be deeply painful for both.

That's why a slate of congressional bills aimed at punishing China for running up a record trade deficit with the U.S. are so self-defeating. One such bill, from Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would slap a 27.5% tariff on all Chinese imports unless the country moves faster to revalue its currency. This could savage the economies of both countries, boosting inflation in the U.S. by causing a big jump in consumer prices while cutting China off from its biggest export market. It could also prompt a trade war that could encourage China to reconsider its ownership of $265.2 billion in U.S. Treasury securities -- a cushion that has kept U.S. interest rates low.

China's need for oil sometimes causes it to support dangerous regimes, such as those in Iran and Sudan. Over time, as the nation becomes more reliant on oil, its leaders will figure out that stability in the Middle East and Africa are as much in China's interest as they are in the United States'.

The most unusual moment of Hu's visit was his question-and-answer session at Yale. It was both surprising and encouraging to see a leader who almost never speaks to reporters field questions from American students. When asked about political freedom, he said China "won't simply copy the political models of other nations." China is indeed following its own path. As its economic ties to the West improve and its standard of living rises, its political transformation, it is to be hoped, will follow.

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