Free-Trade Free-Fall?

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This column was written by Irwin M. Stelzer.
China's premier, Wen Jiabao holds a rare news conference to announce, among other things, that his government would do nothing to increase the value of the yuan. America's Commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez responds with a warning that such a policy "will have consequences...The American people may be forced to reassess our bilateral economic relationship." And he wants more than only a currency reevaluation. Congress, he says, is prepared to act unless China opens its telecoms, IT, and state procurement sectors, and takes steps to protect intellectual property. Gutierrez made these demands knowing full well that the Chinese legislature only days before refused to back a plan to increase private property rights, and that the leadership is under pressure from rural areas to slow market reforms unless something is done to reduce urban-rural inequality.

All of this comes on the heels of the spectacular public spat between the president, who favored allowing Dubai Ports World to acquire the management contracts for six of our ports, and Democrats and members of his own party who forced DPW to back away from the deal. That was not the first deal to be scuppered by public concerns about foreign acquisition of what are seen as strategic assets: A Chinese oil company abandoned efforts to acquire Unocal after Congress demanded that it drop any such plans, in part because of a reluctance to see gas reserves vital to Japan pass into the hands of increasingly belligerent China.

And the battle escalates: Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is demanding that all of America's "critical infrastructure" remain in American hands. He probably doesn't have as broad a definition of "critical infrastructure" as do the French, who include yogurt-maker Danone in that category, but his Democratic colleagues might.

Meanwhile, New York Senator Chuck Schumer has legislation pending that would impose a 27.5 percent import duty on Chinese goods to make up for the undervaluation of the yuan. And recent polls show that for the first time about as many Americans see globalization as a threat as see it as an opportunity. The rising opposition to globalization was sensed by Congress some months ago, which is why President Bush had to twist arms to the breaking point to get a one-vote Senate margin in favor of ratification of the relatively minor Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Then there is the stalled Doha round of trade talks. British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried, but failed, to break the impasse during the London visit of Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula. Blair doesn't have much support for his free-trade stance in Europe, where E.U. trade commissioner Peter Mandelson faces demands that he toughen his proposed restrictions on imports of made-in-China footwear.

But the E.U. will be the E.U.: No one expects its members to lead a fight for free trade. It is American policy since the ports debacle which has free traders worried. So it was no surprise that a recent grilling of America's new ambassador to Britain, Robert Tuttle, was dominated by accusations that America has gone protectionist. Tuttle assured an audience of top London executives and policymakers that the killing of the DPW deal and the recent hesitation by America to share certain technology with our British allies are merely "bumps in the road" to freer trade.