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FT Commentary: China is not to blame for US ills
( 2003-11-05 16:46) (Financial Times by James Sasser)

Robert Zoellick, the US trade representative, and Grant Aldonas, undersecretary of commerce, both attacked China recently for alleged unfair trade practices. This is only the latest manifestation of short-sighted and politically motivated China-bashing from the George W. Bush administration. Eager to find a scapegoat for America's economic troubles, the administration has shown an increasing willingness to blame Beijing, turning a steady stream of anti-China rhetoric into a dangerous election-year torrent.

I do not minimise the importance of the 2.5m American manufacturing jobs that have been lost since 2000. Nor am I blind to the economic dislocations that are inherent to global trade. I consider the condition of working families the most reliable indicator of the health of American society. And I believe strongly that the plight of our working families should be at the top of the agenda in next year's elections. But blaming our economic ills on the Chinese is the wrong course. China should be more to us than a hostile economic "competitor" or a convenient target in our search to blame someone else for our deteriorating manufacturing base.

Given North Korea's nuclear blackmail and al-Qaeda's expanding terrorist outposts in south-east Asia, China is a strategically located power whose actions can help strengthen our international security or weaken it. China is the only country in the world that is bordered by four nuclear powers - a significant consideration in a time of increased global tension.

But the level of campaign rhetoric so far has been dishearteningly shallow. We are already paying a high price internationally for the administration's questionable judgment that Saddam Hussein posed a greater threat than the verifiable nuclear capability of Kim Jong-il's unstable government. Given the weakened position of the US in the world, one might have expected it to show signs of appreciation for China's willingness to mediate in the delicate negotiations with North Korea.

China must open its markets wider to US goods and develop fair and open trading rules if the growing trade giant expects US markets to remain open to Chinese goods, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said during a news conference held at the U.S. Embassy compound in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2003. [Reuters]
Instead, the response has been a chorus of voices from the campaign trail attacking China's currency valuation and trade practices. Most troubling has been the administration's willingness to fan the anti-China flame. This is a dangerous game.

Shortly after I arrived in 1996 as US ambassador to Beijing, the Chinese began launching missiles into the Taiwan Strait and two US aircraft carrier battle groups were sent into the area in response.

From that low point, we embarked on a programme of careful diplomacy that ultimately resulted in the first visit of a Chinese president to the US in a decade. A year after Jiang Zemin's visit, President Bill Clinton went to Beijing to strengthen relations further and to prepare for China's accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2000.

Both during that period and subsequently, China's progress toward reform has been slow, sometimes meandering, but ultimately steady and entirely real.

China's commitment to free market reform has been consistent and remains a powerful force. Its efforts to comply with the terms of its WTO accession, while imperfect, have been favourably received by many US exporters. China has begun to dismantle its massive tariff regime and is opening its markets to a wide range of foreign goods and services. As a result, US exports to China increased by more than 15 per cent between 2001 and 2002.

China has also worked with the US government on several post-September 11 2001 anti-terrorism initiatives, including a recent agreement allowing US customs officials access to the ports of Shanghai and Shenzhen in order monitor container traffic destined for the US.

By western standards, China's record on human rights continues to be tragically inadequate; no one is suggesting that its pace of democratic reform is as rapid as we should like it to be.

But there is much to lose if we allow short-term domestic political advantage to blind us to the long-term strategic consequences. Hu Jintao, China's new president, is eager both to safeguard existing reforms put in place by his predecessor and to advance their momentum.

Nothing could more jeopardise Mr Hu's reformist designs or play more into the hands of the hard-liners than policy dictates from the US that would increase Chinese unemployment (which is already at dangerous levels) or weaken its economic foundation and thereby undercut the essential foundations of continued reform.

The collapse of US manufacturing is a complex problem. Solving it will require a serious, multi-pronged effort of fiscal discipline and monetary management. Filling the economic policy vacuum with China-bashing, however, will only weaken US national security while the toll of American job losses continues to rise.

(The writer is a former US ambassador to China.)

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