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Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006

Congressional group aims to improve U.S.-China ties

HONG KONG -- Quietly and without fanfare, an organization has been formed that may help smooth the course of the development of relations between the United States and China. This is the U.S.-China Working Group in the House of Representatives, set up in mid-2005 and now includes 35 members of congress.

A delegation of this bipartisan body just made its first visit to China, ending in Hong Kong. Last Monday, the group's two co-chairs, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Rick Larsen, as well as Congressman Tom Feeney of Florida, explained the group's goals and its experience in China at a lunch presentation jointly organized by the Asia Society and the American Chamber of Commerce.

According to Kirk, the working group's goal is to make the Washington-Beijing relationship the primary bilateral relationship for the U.S. in the 21st century. He said the group takes no positions on key issues and its members range from pro-China to anti-China congressmen or, as Kirk said, "from panda huggers to dragon slayers."

Instead, Kirk said, the group will focus on "positive, specific key deliverables." One proposal he made was that there be a "dramatic expansion" of the American presence in China, with the setting up of more consulates across the country and increasing the staffing at existing diplomatic missions.

Kirk also called for a dramatic upgrade of the American understanding of China, beginning with the teaching of China and Chinese in public schools. He said there was a need for accurate information about China to be made available to members of congress.

Larsen, the other co-chair, agreed and said that discussions of China in congress "can be very negative" and what the working group wants is a more "positive bipartisan discussion."

During their trip, the three congressmen visited the Jiuquan manned space complex in Inner Mongolia, becoming the first foreign delegation to visit since Yang Liwei was launched into space in October 2003 as China's first astronaut.

They discussed with Chinese officials the possibility of the two countries developing a capability for the joint rescue of astronauts who encounter difficulties in space.

According to Larsen, the Chinese made clear their interest in resuming the launching of commercial satellites for the U.S. Congress in 1998 voted to ban exports of satellites and missile technology to China amid allegations that an American company had helped improve the reliability of Chinese missiles.

The working group is proposing a hot line to link the Pentagon and China's defense ministry. This, its members say, will help reduce misunderstandings between the two militaries. There is already a hot line linking the presidents of the two countries as well as the American secretary of state and the Chinese foreign minister.

Another example of a small but positive step proposed by Kirk, who is from Illinois, is the naming of a Year of China for the city of Chicago. In this way, he said, residents of a major American city will become much more aware of China and issues related to China.

The group had meetings with senior officials, including Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, as well as Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, in addition to discussions with the foreign ministry.

They found the meeting with Wu especially encouraging. The Chinese legislator told them that China, like the U.S., does not want to see Iran develop nuclear weapons. The Chinese also told them that they recently advised a visiting senior Iranian official to return to negotiations with Western countries. China, the group said, should be encouraged to be part of the solution to the Iranian problem.

As for economic issues, such as the call for the revaluation of the Chinese currency, Kirk said the group had met with every major American exporter to China, and the revaluation of the yuan was not their top priority. The top priority, he said, was the protection of intellectual property rights.

Asked if the difference in political systems in the two countries meant that there would always be a limit on the closeness of the U.S.-China relationship, Larsen agreed but said, "We are well below that cap," with plenty of room still for growth in the bilateral relationship.

The creation of the working group, followed by the announcement this month of the setting up of a China Working Group in the U.S. Senate, is certainly a step in the right direction for the improvement of the U.S.-China relationship. But there are tremendous obstacles ahead.

For one thing, three times more congressmen are members of the congressional Taiwan Caucus, which is more sympathetic to President Chen Shui-bian than to China's leaders.

Frank Ching is senior columnist of the South China Morning Post.

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