The Old Hostility Returns

Disputes over Chinese exports and weapons sales are something that neither China nor US wants

ANXIOUSLY, Beijing is watching a new testiness creeping into its volatile relations with Washington. In recent weeks, old disputes have deepened and new disputes have erupted, reviving the air of hostility that has long overshadowed Chinese ties with the United States.

Beijing faces an estimated $1 billion in new US trade sanctions for allegedly exporting missile technology to Pakistan and violating international arms-sale guidelines. China says it strictly observes the Missile Technology Control Regime, which it has not signed. But now the Chinese are threatening to end their compliance.

China has bristled at Taiwanese news reports of US sales of 41 anti-ship missiles to Taipei and an earlier deal to sell four early-warning aircraft and rent three frigates to Taiwan.

China has denounced US threats to cut import quotas for Chinese textiles because of charges of unfair export practices. The two sides have failed to strike an agreement that would reduce China's $6 billion in textile exports to the US by one third.

Beijing is seeking a US apology for its demand to search a Chinese cargo ship, the Yinhe, accused of carrying banned chemical weapons to Iran, and wants almost $13 million in compensation for US harassment of the ship. A forced inspection by Chinese, US, and Saudi Arabian officials in the Saudi port of Dammam turned up no evidence and caused deep embarrassment in Washington.

``By interfering in China's normal trade activities on totally unwarranted charges, the United States has once again put up an infamous show of a `world cop' and revealed its true look of a hegemonic bully,'' observed an Sept. 7 editorial in People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper.

But this is a battle of wills that neither Beijing nor Washington wants. If the disputes escalate, both sides face trade damage in crucial markets. The sanctions could affect up to $500 million a year in deals involving aircraft, computers, and satellite technology.

Particularly hard hit could be US satellite sales to China. Hughes Aircraft Co. is negotiating to sell two satellites and hopes to sell 10 others by the end of the decade.

At risk for China is $25 billion in exports to the US, its largest market. Mounting friction also could endanger another extension of China's most-favored-nation trade status by President Clinton next year.

Last June, China succeeded in placating Clinton-administration and congressional critics and won renewal of its trading privileges on the condition that it improve its human rights record, curb the sale of highly destructive weapons, end the export of products made from prison labor, and reduce its huge $18-billion trade surplus with the US.

Behind some highly charged rhetoric, both sides have moved carefully to tone down the acrimony. With a decision coming this month on Beijing's desperately sought bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics, the US has moderated criticism of Chinese human rights abuses. John Shattuck, the State Department's top official on human rights, is due to visit China soon to assess progress in the human rights arena.

Yet new tensions have surfaced over the expulsion of Chinese trade union activist and dissident Han Dongfang. China has hinted that a compromise might be possible to allow Mr. Han to return home. China is urging a dialogue to resolve its trade and weapons-sale disputes. And Chinese officials recently gave a stream of visiting US lawmakers top access in the Chinese capital.

The two sides ``should set great store by mutual respect and non-interference in each other's internal affairs,'' President Jiang Zemin was quoted as saying by New China News Agency.

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