Chinese-US relations hit a new low

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The Independent Online
WITH DIPLOMATIC relations dogged by scandal and stalemate, the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, arrives in the United States this week for an eight-day tour that will be eclipsed by war in the Balkans.

But the shadow over Mr Zhu's visit is unlikely to displease either side, for US-China relations are, by common consent, as bad as at any point in Bill Clinton's presidency.

On NBC television yesterday, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, confirmed that she would raise the issue of Chinese espionage at US research institutions. The charges burst into the US media last month with reports that China had stolen the blueprints for miniaturised nuclear warheads from a laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

An outcry in Washington, led by the increasingly strong anti-China lobby in Congress, prompted tighter security at scientific research establishments and the dismissal of a Taiwan-born Los Alamos scientist after questioning by the FBI.

The spying allegations, which have still not been proved, revived the acrimonious debate about China policy that has been a leitmotif of the Washington political scene during Mr Clinton's presidency.

China was angered by US congressional votes to proceed with anti-ballistic missile research, fearing that the East Asian security balance could be upset if such "star wars" protection were afforded to Taiwan. And it has been disappointed by its failure to obtain US approval for its membership of the World Trade Organisation.

Washington, in turn, has watched in recent months as headway it believed had been made on human rights went into reverse. There have also been claims that China tried to influence the last presidential election by making illegal contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign. The Chinese have denied such charges but the Republican Party and the media have continued to pursue them.

Only yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that it had traced a contribution of $300,000 (pounds 187,000) to the head of the Chinese security service, naming the intermediary as a Clinton associate, Johnny Chung.

The timing of the article (two days before Zhu Rongji arrives in Los Angeles) was hardly coincidental. The party funding issue is an especially sore point with the administration and it could affect Vice-President Al Gore's prospects of winning the presidency next year.

Officials in Washington and Peking insist that relations are not in such bad health as these frictions suggest.

Trade is the one area where interests converge, and the one that critics of the US China policy say has been fostered at the expense of all else. The US wants to reduce China's huge trade surplus with it, at a time when the US trade deficit overall has been swollen by the economic crisis in Asia.

But Washington is even more keen to keep China from devaluing its currency - a temptation that China, to Washington's satisfaction, has so far resisted.