April 13, 2006

Lawmakers team up for sharper eye on China

By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the U.S. Congress, the Taiwan
Caucus works to bolster American support for diplomatically
isolated Taiwan, while the India group works to cement ties
between the world's two most populous democracies.

The much smaller China Caucus, however, is trying to work
out whether China is a friend or a foe.

China's allies are few on Capitol Hill. A congressional
recess during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington
next week will grant Hu a rare respite from lawmakers wrath and
protectionist threats over trade, currency and energy.

But Hu will meet with some members of the China Caucus and
the U.S.-China Working Group, two bipartisan groups of
lawmakers working to shift congressional debate on China away
from episodic outrage to sustained and sober discussion.

"You won't find any shrill rhetoric coming out of us," said
Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican. Since he launched the
China Caucus last year, its members have toured China and have
hosted a range of China experts from Chinese diplomats to the
Dalai Lama.

"Our goal is to make sure that as a country we are asking
tough questions and then getting rational, reasonable, well-
thought-out answers and not knee-jerk reactions," he said in an

Illinois Republican Mark Kirk says he co-founded the
U.S.-China Working Group to promote "sophisticated, nuanced and
effective" debate of what he calls America's most important
diplomatic and economic relationship.

The group's several dozen members sit on House of
Representatives appropriations subcommittees that fund the
State and Defense Departments and other major agencies.

"Our interaction on the China issue is directly related to
pending legislation," said Kirk. Projects include opening more
consulates in China, shifting diplomats to Asia from Europe and
increasing Chinese language studies in the United States.


But the most prominent China legislation targets a trade
gap with China that hit $205 billion in 2005. Two different
Senate bills threaten tariffs or other penalties unless China
allows its currency to rise.

"China doesn't have a lot of friends on Capitol Hill these
days," said Ted Galen Carpenter, an Asia security analyst at
the CATO Institute, a Washington think tank.

"There is anger at China over the trade deficit and there
is increasing worry about China's behavior both domestically
and internationally," he said.

Evelyn Farkas, a staff member of the Senate Armed Services
Committee, said that most senators see China as a "lukewarm
friend" and specifically want to see more Chinese help in
halting the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

"Most members do not want to see us prematurely corner
China into some kind of adversarial relationship," she added.

Forbes says weekly study sessions made his group concerned
about China's rapid military buildup, and its efforts in the
United States to gather intelligence and to gain influence.

"I don't think we will know for a long time down the road
whether China will be our best friend or our foe," he said.

Kirk said the working group "includes panda huggers and
dragon slayers" -- admirers and critics of China.

"Probably in China you have buffalo huggers and eagle
slayers," he said, noting that stark views of each other
smolder beneath the surface in China and the United States.

"That's why it's so important for politicians in the United
States to develop personal and direct alliances with leaders in
China," said Kirk, a former Navy intelligence officer.