By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
A perfect storm of U.S. grievances with China, ranging from trade and currency to North Korea and military buildup, is gathering. And the danger is that Sino-American relations could be blown into a genuine crisis.
The Bush administration is taking a tougher stance toward China on a number of fronts. In a report to Congress last month and through numerous private channels, the United States is urging China to revalue its currency upward to try to reduce the massive trade surplus it enjoys with the United States. Trade officials are signaling action on the flood of Chinese textiles and on the widespread violations of intellectual-property rights.
The administration repeatedly sent the message that it holds China largely responsible for reining in the nuclear ambitions of its ally North Korea. At a recent meeting of Asian defense officials and experts, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bluntly warned China that its military buildup is unjustified by any threat it faces.
Taken individually, each step is reasonable; these issues have been neglected or played down. But taken together, the administration -- along with Congress -- runs the risk of conveying an untended dramatic shift in policy. And, as Rumsfeld found in Singapore, even our closest allies in Asia are not willing to follow us down that road.
In reality, the stance toward China is less tough then it appears. The actions on trade and currency are minimal, mainly intended to stave off much harsher actions by Congress.
The muscular rhetoric on China's rise conceals unresolved battles within the administration between those who see China as the major threat to U.S. national security and those who believe there is much room for cooperation, even partnership. According to the Nelson Report, an authoritative newsletter on Asian policy, this internal struggle delayed an overdue annual report to Congress on China's military.
That report, Rumsfeld told the annual Asian security conference of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, concluded that Chinese military spending is much higher than officials have published. "Since no nation threatens China," he said, "one must wonder, 'why this growing investment?""
But according to participants, when Rumsfeld delivered his speech he dropped this line from his prepared remarks: "One might be concerned that this buildup is putting the delicate military balance in the region at risk -- especially, but not only, with respect to Taiwan."
After his speech, Rumsfeld faced a barrage of questions that some attendees thought had caught him off-guard. The head of the Chinese delegation, a foreign ministry official, asked Rumsfeld point-blank: "Do you truly believe that China is under no threat from any part of the world? And do you truly believe that the United States felt threatened by the emergence of China?"
Not a threat
Rumsfeld, no shrinking violet, shot back that he knew of no country that threatened China. But he was compelled to state that "we don't feel threatened by the emergence of China."
Another participant, Jonathan Pollack, who directs Asian studies at the U.S. Naval War College, asked Rumsfeld what an appropriate level of military development would be for China. "He dodged that," Pollack recounted to me.
What Rumsfeld heard clearly -- and he listened carefully to it -- was the resistance, including among close U.S. allies, to lining up against China. Almost everyone in Asia shares U.S. nervousness over the rapid rise of China and worries about maintaining the balance of power.
But as Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, told the gathering, "a strategy of confronting China will incur its enmity without seriously blocking its growth, while any attempt to contain China will have few takers in the region."
The Japanese and South Korean defense ministers, who followed Rumsfeld to the podium, notably did not even mention China. The Australians are also uneasy about an anti-China lurch.
Even Japan, which is increasingly tethered to the United States, fears becoming isolated in Asia.
"Nobody else in Asia sees that they have a dog in this fight," observes Pollack. "There is a real concern that the relative stability and advance in U.S.-China relations that was so evident in Bush I is now at risk."
That is a concern the Bush administration will have to answer in the months ahead.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.