Is the Bush administration thinking about the China relationship?

With the Bush administration’s recent move to press a suit against Chinese violations of intellectual property in the WTO sparking fears of a full-blown Sino-American trade war, I must ask the same questionI asked when the US Commerce Department announced tariffs on Chinese glossy paper: is this administration pursuing a coherent strategy in Asia, or is it just making things up as it goes along? Does the US really expect that friction on trade will not have consequences for Sino-American cooperation in other areas, most notably in the six-party talks?

The US, of course, should not hesitate to press China on matters of concern, but it must choose its battles wisely; with Congress breathing down the administration’s neck on the economic relationship with China, I fear that prudence is becoming an altogether rare quality in US China policy. Moreover, I do not think the administration has made an effort to counter the public scapegoating of China and explain to the American public the substantial benefits of the relationship. That is a point made by the authors of a new Council on Foreign Relations study on the relationship with China. As co-author Carla Hills said at a press conference announcing the report, “We recommended that the president describe to the American public the various benefits that we derive from that relationship and that we state that our interests are furthered by a responsible and cooperative China that adheres to international norms, a prosperous and peaceful China that fuels global growth, and an equitable China that is accountable and cares about issues like the environment.”

Whether this will happen is any one’s guess, but I doubt that President Bush is particularly eager to defend China publicly.

Maintaining the US-China relationship requires work, and it requires vision. Neither country can afford to wait until January 2009 for either.

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