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US lawmakers team up for sharper eye on China

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Apr 13 (Reuters) In the US Congress, the Taiwan Caucus works to bolster American support for diplomatically isolated Taiwan, while the India group works to works to cement ties between the world's two most populous democracies.

The much smaller China Caucus, however, is trying to work out whether China is a friend or a foe.

China's allies are few on Capitol Hill. A congressional recess during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington next week will grant Hu a rare respite from lawmakers wrath and protectionist threats over trade, currency and energy.

But Hu will meet with some members of the China Caucus and the US-China Working Group, two bipartisan groups of lawmakers working to shift congressional debate on China away from episodic outrage to sustained and sober discussion.

''You won't find any shrill rhetoric coming out of us,'' said Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican. Since he launched the China Caucus last year, its members have toured China and have hosted a range of China experts from Chinese diplomats to the Dalai Lama.

''Our goal is to make sure that as a country we are asking tough questions and then getting rational, reasonable, well- thought-out answers and not knee-jerk reactions,'' he said in an interview.

Illinois Republican Mark Kirk says he co-founded the U.S.-China Working Group to promote ''sophisticated, nuanced and effective'' debate of what he calls America's most important diplomatic and economic relationship.

The group's several dozen members sit on House of Representatives appropriations subcommittees that fund the State and Defense Departments and other major agencies.

''Our interaction on the China issue is directly related to pending legislation,'' said Kirk. Projects include opening more consulates in China, shifting diplomats to Asia from Europe and increasing Chinese language studies in the United States.

'PANDA HUGGERS AND DRAGON SLAYERS' But the most prominent China legislation targets a trade gap with China that hit 205 billion dollars in 2005. Two different Senate bills threaten tariffs or other penalties unless China allows its currency to rise.

''China doesn't have a lot of friends on Capitol Hill these days,'' said Ted Galen Carpenter, an Asia security analyst at the CATO Institute, a Washington think tank.

''There is anger at China over the trade deficit and there is increasing worry about China's behavior both domestically and internationally,'' he said.

Evelyn Farkas, a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that most senators see China as a ''lukewarm friend'' and specifically want to see more Chinese help in halting the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

''Most members do not want to see us prematurely corner China into some kind of adversarial relationship,'' she added.

Forbes says weekly study sessions made his group concerned about China's rapid military buildup, and its efforts in the United States to gather intelligence and to gain influence.

''I don't think we will know for a long time down the road whether China will be our best friend or our foe,'' he said.

Kirk said the working group ''includes panda huggers and dragon slayers'' -- admirers and critics of China.

''Probably in China you have buffalo huggers and eagle slayers,'' he said, noting that stark views of each other smolder beneath the surface in China and the United States.

''That's why it's so important for politicians in the United States to develop personal and direct alliances with leaders in China,'' said Kirk, a former Navy intelligence officer.


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