Tue, Jun 28, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Consistent China policy eludes US

In the wake of CNOOC's buyout bid for Unocal and Beijing's insistence on maintaining the yuan peg, US officials are frantically trying to come up with a strategy for dealing with China's soaring trade surplus

By Edmund L. Andrews  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

For US President George W. Bush's administration, and even for many members of Congress, China has become almost too big to bash.

A day after one of China's state-controlled oil companies made an unsolicited US$18.5 billion bid for Unocal, a Californian oil and gas company with extensive fields in Asia, US administration officials and many lawmakers were almost tongue-tied about the implications.

US Treasury Secretary John Snow, asked whether he would lead a national security review of the deal, hesitantly told members of the Senate Finance Committee last Thursday that the question was "hypothetical" because the transaction has yet to happen.

US Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said virtually nothing about the deal. But he used some of his bluntest language ever to warn lawmakers against imposing tariffs on China as a way to pressure it over its exchange-rate policies.

For months, many lawmakers in both parties have become almost frantic about China's soaring trade surplus and its impact on US manufacturers.

Anxiety is so high that Republican lawmakers from industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania are loathe to vote for anything that sounds like a free-trade agreement.

But anxiety is at least as great about a disruption of US business ties to China.

"I think there is a reluctance to confront China," said Republican Representative Phil English of Pennsylvania, the leader of the congressional steel caucus.

"The problem is that many companies are depending on Chinese inputs and on imported goods to sell at retailers," he said.

China is also one of the US' largest creditors, and acquired more than US$200 billion worth of Treasury securities over the past year.

Moreover, China is already home to a growing number of US-owned factories, many of them exporting back to the US, and an even greater number of factories that are suppliers to US companies.

For the past two years, the Bush administration has struggled to balance competing economic goals: It wants to persuade China to let its currency rise in value, which would make Chinese imports more expensive in dollar terms even as it works to fend off proposals from Congress to impose high tariffs if China refuses to change its policies.

Last Thursday, Snow argued that it would be dangerous to impose "punitive" actions on China. Not only would it be a mistake to threaten China with tariffs if it refuses to let its currency float, he said, but it would also be a mistake to subject China to countervailing duties in cases where it illegally subsidizes exports.

"Acting on any of the punitive legislative proposals before Congress now would be counterproductive," Snow told lawmakers.

Greenspan, testifying at the same hearing, said it was a major mistake to think that US jobs would be increased even if China did change its currency policies.

"I am aware of no credible evidence that supports such a conclusion," Greenspan said. Tariffs of Chinese imports would protect "few, if any American jobs," he continued, and would "materially lower our standard of living."

But the political debate about China is lagging behind events on the ground.

The US$18.5 billion bid for Unocal by China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC), China's third-largest oil company, was merely the latest and by far the biggest move by a Chinese company to acquire a formidable US company.

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