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Pacific Perspectives

The U.S.-China Relationship: Only Paper Thin?
By Tom Plate

Los Angeles ?It is not always easy to tell whether the government of China is really, truly that angry when it tells the world that it is really, truly angry.

But lately China has been telling anyone wholl listen that its furious beyond words with the U.S. right now. The cause for Beijings dismay is the Bush administrations move toward imposing hefty import taxes on incoming Chinese coated paper. The sulking out of Beijing is sullen and significant, even if somewhat stage-managed. This is because the Chinese appreciate that such U.S. trade retaliation could spread from coated paper to a whole raft of allegedly subsidized Chinese imports.

The growing anger on the American side originates mainly with those industries who feel their products are undercut by China-originating plastic, steel and textile goods that are priced impossibly cheaply. These industries are well-represented by their well-paid pals in Congress, especially Democrats who, having won control of Congress just five months ago, are now drooling over winning back the White House.

Picking a fight with Beijing at this moment seems like a grand, no-lose idea to the Democrats. For all its economic advances, China remains a mainly repressive state thats a poster icon for U.S. human rights groups of all kinds ?and these groups have members who wouldnt vote for a Republican even

Whats more, the Chinese have stashed away the equivalent of over a trillion U.S. dollars in reserve deposits, largely due to the fact that it peddles so much more of its stuff here than America does in China. Another issue is the Chinese governments determination to keep the value of its currency lower than its market value. Among other things, this helps all Chinese exporters market their goods at lower prices in foreign countries.

Its all very complicated. You can find experts, in the West and in Asia, who make strong arguments on all sides of these issues. Personally and professionally, I find the careful analysis of Prof. Lawrence J. Lau and his crack team at the Stanford Center for International Development the most persuasive. They have argued that the U.S. actually benefits more from the trade imbalance because there is more value-added to the U.S. economy from our exports to them, than for the Chinese economy from theirs to ours.

So the work of the Lau team makes you wonder why the Democrats would want to ruin a thing thats good for the U.S. Theres another reason why the impending Democratic attack on Chinas economic ways and means is bad news for America, even if it racks up lots of votes for the Democratic Party. The fact of the matter is that unless China self-destructs, it is well on its way to becoming a world power ?no matter what human-rights groups on the left and neo-conservatives on the right want. The U.S. can thus choose to work with the Chinese or choose to make an enemy out of them by going ballistic to every perceived inequity. Chinas efforts do not necessarily conflict with U.S. interests,?writes Fletcher School professor Daniel Drezner in The New New World Order,?a deeply thoughtful international overview in the current Foreign Affairs?journal, but,?he adds, they could if Beijing so desired.?

The Bush administration, on the whole, has managed relations with Beijing about a billion times better than its fiasco approach to the Middle East. Alas, now it is the Democratic Congress that looms as the new unilateralist know-nothings. Travel almost anywhere in Asia and you will hear the same plea over and over again: Whatever you Americans do, dont create unnecessary trouble with China. We dont want to have to take sides and you dont want the trouble the Chinese can cause.

Singapores Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently put the matter to me in these sharp terms: The trade deficit has become a political issue. It has been linked up with the exchange rate. Economically speaking, it doesnt follow, but thats the politics and you cant unlink that. So that is a problem and if Congress pushes the wrong way, you can have a lot of rough weather as you did with Japan in the ?0s. But this will be much worse because China is much bigger and its a completely different relationship. The U.S. can fight with Japan and its not going to be your enemy. But if you fight with China, that's very big trouble.?

Iraq notwithstanding, America remains the worlds only military and economic superpower. But to keep that position, it needs to pick its enemies very carefully. If theres one country that needs to be handled with care, its China. In a perfect world, the coated-paper threat would be thrown in the trash can of domestic politics. But the U.S. presidential campaign has in effect already begun. Expect a lot more of this kind of nonsense ?with some of it almost certainly coming back to haunt us.

UCLA Prof Tom Plates new book is titled Confessions of an American Media Man.??Tom Plate, 2007. Distributed by the UCLA Media Center.

 

 

 

 
 

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