China-Bashers Are Back on the Job in the U.S.

Taiwan and China aren't the only ones on a possible collision course these days. So, too, may be the U.S. and China. The Bush Administration had eased tense relations with Beijing after a crisis over the collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet was resolved in April, 2001. China's entry into the World Trade Organization last year ended acrimonious annual fights over normal trade relations with Beijing. The Bush team also halted another irritant, the yearly decision on arms sales to Taiwan. September 11 cemented the detente, as Beijing offered to aid the war on terrorism.

Now, though, the roller-coaster Washington-Beijing relationship seems headed for another dip. The anti-China coalition in Congress that long fought the establishment of normal trade relations with Beijing has regrouped and is threatening new legislative actions this fall. Tensions over Taiwan may provide more ammunition for China-bashers. With China skeptics again speaking out, "China's top leaders understand that the relationship between the U.S. and China will surely go downhill in the next few years," says Yan Xuetong, director of Qinghua University's Institute of International Studies

The resurgence of anti-China sentiment puts President Bush in a bind. The Administration already includes hard-liners who worry that China is bent on regional hegemony and will become a U.S. adversary. In late July, the Pentagon published a report estimating China's defense budget to be $65 billion rather than the $20 billion Beijing reports. But Bush can't play hardball now because he needs Beijing in the terrorism fight. The White House also wants Chinese acquiescence at the U.N. Security Council if the U.S. tries to oust Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

The President's current stance is unlikely to deter the rejuvenated anti-China coalition, however. The loosely knit group unites Republican security hawks with pro-labor and pro-human rights Democrats. And it is backed up by numerous China experts. Several have published anti-China books, while others serve on the new, congressionally mandated U.S.-China Security Review Commission. Its first annual report in July warned that if the relationship is mishandled, China could create "significant economic and security problems for our country."

A leader of the coalition is Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He and other China skeptics are planning to use popular legislation over the next year as vehicles for anti-China amendments. They're expected to demand greater disclosure by Chinese companies raising capital in the U.S. and tighter restrictions on high-tech exports to Beijing, which they fear could be used for military purposes. "Do we really want to arm China?" asks Michael A. Ledeen, the commission's vice-chairman and an American Enterprise Institute scholar. "That seems to me to be a big mistake." A legislative drive could undermine Sino-U.S. ties just as President Jiang Zemin visits the U.S. in October.

How bad could relations get? The Administration is likely to fight draconian measures, but the debate alone over anti-China proposals can spark a negative reaction from Beijing. "The threat to Sino-U.S. relations, the threat to world peace, doesn't lie in China but rather in [those] who have fabricated this China threat," Xie Feng, the Chinese embassy's spokesman in Washington, recently told reporters. If the anti-China crowd gets busy, Beijing may soon have tougher things to say.

By Stan Crock in Washington, with Dexter Roberts in Beijing

— With assistance by Dexter Roberts

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.