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Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Don't toy around with Sino-U.S. relations

LOS ANGELES — An effective foreign policy requires proportionate thinking. Hysteria and demagoguery can win a few elections, but they can lose wars and economic battles of enormous consequence. In the United States, foreign policy is particularly complex: Even if the president and the executive branch get things right, the effort will be eviscerated if overly ambitious politicians in the legislative branch make a brutal hash of coherent policy.

Such is beginning to happen with the Sino-U.S. relationship. The "Made in China" safety scare is being fanned into a slash-and-burn conflagration by American politicians who either are happy to destroy what the Bush and Clinton administrations have managed to achieve in relations with Beijing or have no idea of what they are doing.

Some of the posturing in Washington could be viewed as comic if the stakes were not so serious. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and others are actually calling for a ban on all toys exported from China to the U.S. "We have to do something in Washington to give confidence to consumers across America that when they go into the toy store, they aren't going to play Chinese roulette trying to figure out which toy they can safely buy for their child," Durbin said.

Then there is a Heritage Foundation researcher in Washington who offers more idiocy: "China is absolutely a key player in screwing the Americans every chance they get." Really? And there's Sen. Hillary Clinton, a presidential contender, who wants us to get "tougher on China."

The fact of the matter is that the Chinese are only partially responsible for the tainted-imports crisis. Bottom-line fixated American toy companies and mega-size discount chains that chose not to look too carefully or inspect properly added to the mess. And U.S. regulatory agencies (underfunded and undermanned) allowed these seriously defective and sometimes dangerous products to come into the country and sit enticingly on retail shelves. When you combine greed and incompetence, you get a powerful force for trouble.

This is not to let the Chinese off the hook by any means. China needs to get a grip on the quality control of its product lines — and fast. Ordinarily, it should be noted, the government and the political culture of the People's Republic of China move with the speed of a snail. But in this case, China, where booming export sales have been fueling its impressive economic growth year after year, has been anything but unresponsive.

Its latest urgent move was to create a new agency for product quality headed by the near legendary Wu Yi. She is an extremely strong-willed, accomplished negotiator, with the determined disposition of a pit bull searching for the last bone in the house. You can be sure that everyone took notice when she was announced as chief head-cracker for China's great product-improvement leap forward.

But even with her efforts, it remains to be seen whether China can get its arms around the export-quality issue quickly enough. What's not uncertain is the need for the U.S. itself to do two things.

One is to stop blaming China and accept responsibility for monitoring product safety in the U.S., whether the imports come from a huge place like China with 1.3 billion people (of which some inevitably are crooks and incompetents) or from relatively minuscule countries that don't have 6 million different things going on at the same time.

The second need is for U.S. politicians to stop playing with fire. For starters, how about showing some humility for once? Let's face it: U.S. exports are not always such a prize. What's the quality-control track record of many U.S. car exports?

Let us not forget that the central bank of China, which owns a colossal amount of U.S. Treasury notes, could trigger something like financial chaos in the U.S. if it angrily (and unwisely) began dumping them for other currencies.

The key point that all Americans must keep in mind is that the bilateral relationship with China takes in huge and important matters. Imports and exports are part of it; but an even more important part is the security situation in Asia, to which the Chinese, to date, have played a responsible role. Other major issues include cooperation on the environment, on internationally communicable disease and, of course, on terrorism. The list is long indeed.

Perceptive Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore and a strong U.S. supporter, has warned that if America chooses to pick a fight with China, "there will be very big trouble." It's time to stop toying around with Sino-U.S. relations.

UCLA adjunct professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist whose new book is "Confessions of an American Media Man."

Copyright Tom Plate 2007

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