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Democrats Are Heroes... and Villains Font Size: 
By Rowan Callick : BIO| 23 Nov 2020
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The Democrats are being lauded in Europe and much of the Americas as the heroes of the hour, rescuing the USA from those mad neocons. But in most of Asia the perception is quite different -- of the Democrat majority as a threat, an enemy of trade, and a busybody across a broader range of issues than the Republican human rights campaigners with their predictable religious focus.

In China especially, where the mid-term election itself attracted little media interest, its outcome is now starting to arouse loudly expressed concern about the future relationship of the two great powers.

There, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and global warming are issues of secondary importance. But trade, Taiwan, and preventing what the government views as unwelcome interference in its domestic affairs, are issues of the highest priority.

And on each of the latter, the top Democrats are leading what Beijing perceives as an anti-China charge. With about 20 pieces of legislation critical of China, most relating to trade, awaiting legislative approval, their chance of enactment appears to have suddenly soared.

In the case of Vietnam, the US Congress voted in mid November to deny permanent normalized trade status immediately after the country was accepted into the World Trade Organisation, and on the eve of Hanoi hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit of leaders who included President George Bush.

The APEC nations, which together account for more than half global economic output, are among the world's most promiscuous and eager trading partners - multilateral, bilateral, regional, whatever it takes.

Australia's veteran Prime Minister John Howard, the Western leader now, after ten years in power, closest to his Asian counterparts, said: "I fear that the cause of international trade reform may have been somewhat damaged by the outcome of the Congressional election in the US, with the election of a significant number of protectionist Democrats."

There has been disappointment in Asia that the Bush White House has appeared so distracted by the Middle East. But when regional leaders have caught a glimpse of the president, they have tended to like what they have found. If there has been a criticism of the Bush years in Asia, it has been of a lack of involvement in the region rather than of excessive zeal there.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of the country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, said after meeting him on November 16: "Whether the election had a thumping outcome or not, he is in a thumping mood... He is a strong leader, with a certain verve."

The US trade deficit with China, which soared by a quarter last year to $A 263 billion, and is still rising rapidly, is often cited by organized labour and Democrat critics as the result of "unfair" trade.

On the Republican side of politics, critics of China on human rights and religious freedom grounds have tended to be outweighed by the power of the business lobby which has both invested massively in China and relies heavily on cheap Chinese imports for continued consumption growth.

And Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs chief seen as the most powerful figure in President George Bush's present Cabinet, is viewed by Beijing as a "lao pengyou" - an old friend and supporter.

In contrast, the anointing of Californian Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi as the incoming Speaker of the House of Representatives has been welcomed warmly not in Beijing but in the embattled "pan-green" or pro-independence circles in Taiwan, which China claims as a rebel province. Taiwan's Foreign Ministry spokesman David Wang said: "We feel happy about her being elected, and offer our heartfelt congratulations."

Veteran pro-Taiwan Washington lobbyist Coen Blaauw told the Taipei Times: "Democratic control of the House is good for Taiwan."

Senior Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer, sponsor of a bill which he is holding in abeyance that would impose a 27.5 per cent tariff on all Chinese goods unless China substantially revalues its currency, said: "I want to be known as the senator who's against China."

The likely new head of the International Relations Committee, Democrat Representative Tom Lantos, last year presented Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, Beijing's Public Enemy Number Two (after Falun Gong guru Li Hongzhi), with the Congressional Human Rights Caucus' annual award. He told US internet companies which had acceded to Chinese rules to gain access to its vast market: "Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I cannot understand how your corporate executives sleep at night."

Chinese commentators expressed concern about the election outcome - though many also stressed that the relationship between the countries was now too deep and diverse to be easily derailed.

Zhang Liping, a researcher at China Academy of Social Science, called Rep. Lantos "a trouble maker, opposed to China on almost every issue." However, "many Democrats are still clear-minded, so the relationship won't become too unstable."

Wang Yiwei, associate professor at the American Studies Centre at Fudan University, Shanghai, said Rep. Pelosi is "quite prejudiced against China, so we may expect more noise on human rights and the trade deficit." Jin Canrong, vice dean of Renmin University's International Relations faculty in Beijing, commented on her "great bias against China." A number of newspapers editorialized on the same theme.

China is becoming more sophisticated about letting such commentators pre-emptively off the leash, hoping to head off potential conflict while it remains mainly a matter of rhetorical flourishes amplified in the electoral arena.

Maintaining smooth relations with Washington is at the core of Beijing's foreign policy. But if Congress keeps kicking China, Beijing will not hesitate to launch a contest for influence in the region at a time which least suits a distracted USA.

Rowan Callick is the Beijing-based China Correspondent of The Australian newspaper.

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