Pelosi-led House seen not rocking boat on China

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Sat Nov 11, 2006 9:35 AM ET
By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives led by frequent China critic Nancy Pelosi will intensify scrutiny of Chinese trade and human rights practices, but will stop short of confrontation, American and Chinese experts said.

The Democratic Party's capture of both the House and the Senate revived concerns about new trade protectionism against China, and raised hope among rights activists for more U.S. pressure on Beijing.

Both the fears and the hopes are overblown, argue analysts, who point to vital U.S.-China cooperation on curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions and other global problems.

"Nancy Pelosi does have a pretty strong background on China-related things, but she will now have a new level of responsibility and that may well shift the way she handles the relationship," said University of Michigan scholar Kenneth Lieberthal, who was an Asia expert in the Clinton White House.

Pelosi, set to become speaker of the House, in 1991 went to Beijing's Tiananmen Square to honor victims of the massacre of democracy activists there two years earlier. She was surrounded by Chinese police who roughed up her entourage in an incident China denounced as a "premeditated farce."

The California liberal never fails to commemorate anniversaries of the June 4 killings, and has often voted against China on trade and security issues.


The Uighur American Association, a group representing exiles from the restive Chinese-controlled Muslim region of Xinjiang, this week hailed Pelosi as an "exceptional woman."

"I am confident Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongolians and anyone else living in fear under China's rule will take heart that she has risen to such deserved prominence," said group leader Rebiya Kadeer, a 2006 Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

Chinese experts say exposure to Pelosi's large San Francisco constituency of Chinese-Americans has given her a far more nuanced view than newspaper headlines would suggest.

"She will be critical on human rights and on trade, but she will not let things get out of control," said Sun Zhe, an expert on China-U.S. relations at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Pelosi's fellow senior Democrats who will chair key House committees dealing with China "are critical of some things in China, but not outright hostile," Sun added.

Before Tuesday's midterm elections, the victorious Democrats did "remarkably little thinking about the international agenda beyond Iraq," said Kurt Campbell of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS.

He said that while the Iraq war would continue to dominate debate, "there will be protectionist sentiments in large parts of the Democratic Party."

On Wednesday, Rep. Charles Rangel, who is poised to become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, urged the government to get tougher on trade with China, whose surplus with the United States looks set to surpass last year's record of $202 billion.

In the Senate, Democratic and Republican lawmakers who accuse China of deliberately holding down the value of its currency to prop up an export-driven economy have put forth legislation that threatens steep tariffs on Chinese goods.

CSIS trade expert Grant Aldonas said one test of the Democrats' attitudes on trade will be next week's vote to approve permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam, which comes shortly before President George W. Bush heads to Hanoi for an economic summit.

"Things like the vote on Vietnam will be early indicators whether we'll see cooperation or whether we're going to see continuing divisiveness and partisanship on trade," he said. (Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing)