Is China a threat?

Robert Novak
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Posted: Oct 27, 2005 12:05 AM

BEIJING -- The message from officials in this huge, shiny, booming capital is that China's military buildup does not connote desire to kick the Americans out of East Asia. Their assertion is buttressed by the clear impression that people here are interested in making money, not war. Yet, that members of the U.S. Congress see China's Communist regime as a threat is felt here to be endangering the relationship between the two powers.

 The Chinese position was laid out unequivocally for me by Assistant Foreign Minister Guofeng Sheng, the highest official made available to me on my first visit to China in 12 years: "China has no intention to restrict or limit United States influence. We do not have the capability. Nor would we have such need [to attain that capability]." He added: "We are not a threat to anybody."

 But difficulty in Sino-American relations is no mere paranoia among hard-line congressmen in Washington. Chinese officials and U.S. diplomats admit that the love affair with America by ordinary Chinese ended more than a decade ago, replaced by a worrisome anti-Americanism. The United States is not much better loved in Beijing than it is in Paris.

 On the surface it is difficult to see militarism here. The dusty old city I encountered for the first time in 1978 is now a glittering giant of 11 million dedicated to commerce. Patriotic posters have been replaced by corporate ads. Once omnipresent soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, nowhere to be seen, are either demobilized or back in barracks.

 Assistant Foreign Minister Sheng expressed exasperation at anybody imagining that the Chinese military could crowd U.S. forces out of Asia. "We are not that strong. There is not a military buildup," he told me, because Chinese spending is at only one-eighth of the U.S. level.

 The Chinese regime wants to reassure Washington, giving Donald Rumsfeld remarkable access here last week even though the secretary of Defense had been demonized in the Chinese press as instigator of the Iraq intervention. Sources close to Communist leaders say they are not really that concerned with nuclear weapons in North Korean hands but are aggressively engaging in the six-power process to please the Americans.

 The issue cited by Sheng and other Chinese officials most dangerous to Sino-American amity is the Taiwan question. But sources say the regime actually is not eager to incorporate Taiwan now so long as it does not move to independence. With the Kuomintang party apparently poised to regain power in Taiwan, the independence threat would be gone for now.

 Bad blood was spawned in the streets in the early '90s when the U.S. Congress opposed the 2000 Olympics for Beijing. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War was not regarded as an accident by either the people or the authorities and is still talked about here. Displeasure with Iraq followed these special irritants.

 Beyond the streets, however, is one prominent Chinese businessman who feels he was treated unfairly by U.S. politicians: Chengyu Fu, chairman of the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC). A little over 70 percent of CNOOC is owned by the state (the rest by private investors). But Fu told me the Communist regime had nothing to do with his decision to buy California-based Unocal oil company or his decision to back off when a firestorm developed in Congress.

 In CNOOC's gleaming Beijing office building, Fu said he thought the Unocal deal would not only have benefited his shareholders but also fit the U.S. ideal of unimpeded investment across national borders. Instead, China was accused of trying to corner the international oil market. "We thought we were doing a good thing," Fu told me. "I was naive. But this is the world we live in."

 CNOOC, he said, is a good global citizen. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the company's employees voluntarily contributed $100,000 for relief of the victims, which was matched by the company for a total $200,000 contribution. That unpublicized charity, he said, reflects a China that members of Congress don't know about. "China has changed," he said. "Even the Communist Party has changed. But the world does not know it."