Seismic shifts in alliances

Ties with China, Libya improving, despite strains in rest of world

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2004

WASHINGTON Across the world, it seems that U.S. diplomacy is breaking down.

America's ties with Europe and the United Nations are frayed. The Arab world is furious over U.S. support for Israel on West Bank settlements. Pleas for help in stabilizing Iraq have found few takers. Troops from Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic are leaving. And coalition leaders still standing with President Bush face rising political dissent at home.

On the other hand, relations are clearly improving with China and Libya. The U.S. overtures to these old totalitarian foes might have startled administration foreign policy hawks just a few years ago, but the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced some seismic shifts in global dynamics.

Libya is Bush's poster child of a rogue regime that saw the light. The administration is poised to lift some sanctions to reward Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for abandoning weapons of mass destruction and accepting responsibility for the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing.

And forging closer ties with China is a courtship of convenience. The United States is looking to Beijing to help defuse the North Korean nuclear standoff and to open more of China's markets to U.S. companies. It has also helped on the global war on terror.

Given the turmoil in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, the last thing the Bush administration needs is confrontation with Beijing or a flare up in North Korea. The administration also is under political attacks for not doing enough to narrow America's soaring trade deficit with China.

''This really is an amazing relationship. It's gone from almost nothing to one of the most significant bilateral relationships anyplace in the world today,'' Vice President Dick Cheney said on a recent trip to China.

China, now America's third-largest trading partner, agreed during high-level talks in Washington last week to a series of agreements to open more markets to U.S. goods and to crack down on piracy of copyrighted CDs, movies and computer software. Commerce Secretary Don Evans called it ''a landmark day.''

Meanwhile, China's leaders apparently went along with a direct appeal by Cheney to exert more pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to dismantle his nuclear program.

Visiting Beijing last week just days after Cheney, Kim told Chinese officials he is committed to continuing six-nation talks and ending the nuclear dispute through dialogue, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.

China even broadcast a Cheney speech in Shanghai without censorship although later edited out the vice president's remarks on Taiwan and human rights in a government-posted transcript.

Washington and Beijing share a strategic interest in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and in keeping oil shipping lanes open in the Persian Gulf. China, the world's fastest-growing economy, is becoming one of its thirstiest oil importers.

''There's no doubt that the United States is isolated from the rest of the world and that China is a country that superficially seems to have an agenda in foreign policy that dovetails with ours,'' said Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the U.S. Business & Industrial Council in Washington, a business trade group.

However, Tonelson cautions: ''While the Bush administration and China can clearly work together, I think the Bush folks need to be more mindful of the fact that the Chinese bottom line is not the same as the U.S. bottom line.''

The breakneck integration of China into the world economy continues to hurt many American manufacturers and cost U.S. jobs, and China's military buildup looms as an ever-present national security concern, Tonelson said.

Joel Wit, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that continuing challenges in violence-torn Iraq and a recent increase in terror attacks against western targets ''makes the Bush administration want to keep a lid on things'' elsewhere.

''But the Chinese are also looking at the United States as being tied down in Iraq'' and that probably limits the degree to which China is ready to make additional concessions, especially on North Korea, he said.

Cheney concedes it would be ''a mistake for us, as Americans, to underestimate the extent to which there are differences.''

Still, Cheney added, ''When you look at what has been achieved on both sides both in the United States and in China both countries have been doing something right.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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