- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

When Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington next month he should buy Rep. Mike Rogers a cup of coffee and maybe even ask him to dance — figuratively, that is. The Michigan lawmaker is a free-trade advocate but understands the complicated jig that underlies growing congressional nervousness about China.

Mr. Hu may wonder what all the fuss was about in Congress concerning the now-scuttled acquisition of Unocal by China’s CNOOC Ltd. Mr. Rogers could give him an earful. Based on statements by Chinese government officials and business leaders following the ill-fated CNOOC bid, it’s clear that they could use a tutorial or two. To improve its trade relations with the United States, China needs to learn the nuanced dance of congressional politics — and enhance its image with American lawmakers.

Following the passage of a congressional resolution calling on the administration to scrutinize the CNOOC bid, the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded angrily, saying, “We demand that the U.S. Congress correct its mistaken ways of politicizing economic and trade issues and stop interfering in the normal commercial exchanges,”according to the Wall Street Journal. The problem is that Mr. Rogers and his colleagues don’t view a largely state-owned company, using government-subsidized loans, buying an American company with large reserves of a strategic asset as a “normal commercial exchange.”

The same Journal story quoted Xing Houyuan of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, a think tank, saying “Free trade for the U.S. isn’t really free and fair, it’s just what’s best for the U.S.” Again, statements this incendiary demonstrate a lack of understanding of the mood and role of Congress.

A majority of Republican lawmakers support free and more expansive trade with China. They recognize that expanding exports represents an important component of domestic economic growth and job creation. Most also approve of American manufacturing firms making capital investments in China and endorse constructive engagement on a host of other issues, including Chinese relations with North Korea and Iran on nuclear proliferation.

Chinese leaders need to understand that most members of Congress are not poised to begin a trade war; indeed they want quite the opposite. Lawmakers embrace a “trust but verify” view of the bilateral relationship. But the process of verifying has illuminated some trouble spots that require attention — problems that Mr. Hu can and should address if he has that coffee with Mr. Rogers.

For example, a fresh dialogue on intellectual property would represent a major breakthrough. Mr. Rogers puts this problem at the top of his list. “Stealing intellectual property goes way beyond movies, DVDs and the things Hollywood cares about,” Mr. Rogers told me recently. “Focusing too much on the problems of the entertainment industry has actually hampered our efforts to draw attention to the scope of the issue. Stealing intellectual property is also a huge problem for small manufacturers and harms their ability to compete.” Mr. Rogers has some compelling examples — ranging from auto parts to needle nose-pliers — of how counterfeiting by Chinese companies means that U.S. firms that play by the rules just can’t compete.

Showing progress, even without perfection, would help staunch protectionist rhetoric on the Hill. Lawmakers’ biases tilt toward free trade; but they get lost without a roadmap to ending unfair practices and signals from the Chinese government indicating willingness to enforce the rule of law protecting intellectual property.

What the Chinese need to realize is that, unlike their command-control system, ours is more freewheeling — a dance with myriad participants. But whether it’s a tango or a waltz, there’s a way to get through it by holding on and looking your partner in the eye. Even CNOOC was, in some ways, an unnecessary casualty. There was a good chance the deal would have been approved — with some concessions — if the Chinese had stayed engaged and decided to dance.

President Hu’s visit provides an opportunity for the Chinese to learn more about the American process and show an appreciation for hot-button issues like intellectual property protection. The Chinese leader should sit down with lawmakers like Mr. Rogers and demonstrate how he plans to move towards changing his country’s culture concerning the rule of law. Have that cup of coffee and cue the music.

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