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China’s relations with the United States are going to turn decidedly cool over the next few months. The already partisan atmosphere in Washington will intensify in the runup to the November elections: Human rights and trade issues will move to the top of the U.S. political agenda. Asian nations need to be prepared for the tension and the fallout. Ironically, this rough spot could provide a firmer foundation for future Sino-U.S. relations, but it promises to be difficult in the interim.

The first warning signal was this week’s announcement that the U.S. will introduce a resolution condemning China’s human-rights record at the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in March. The U.S. claims that the Chinese government has intensified a crackdown on political dissidents, tightened controls on religion and the Internet, and suppressed ethnic minority groups, especially Tibetans.

China’s actions last year deserve condemnation. Prodemocracy activists have been jailed and their sympathizers’ activities restricted. A librarian from Dickinson University, a Chinese scholar who won U.S. citizenship but has not yet been sworn in, was arrested five months ago and charged with espionage, although he was merely researching the Cultural Revolution. A campaign is under way to secure his release.

Finally, China has engaged in a campaign of religious persecution. The most visible target has been the Falun Gong sect. Since 10,000 followers suddenly appeared in Beijing last year to mount a silent protest against the government, the authorities have clamped down on the group, reportedly jailing more than 1,500 of its members. In December, some of the sect’s leaders were sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The campaign against religious groups has spread to “underground” churches that practice their faith independently of official, government-approved churches in China and are thought to have as many as 40 million members. U.S. groups accuse the Chinese government of using the law outlawing Falun Gong to label 10 Christian sects illegal “cults” and to jail their leaders.

Other issues will also be troublesome. Tensions with Taiwan are sure to escalate as that country heads toward its own presidential election in March. The seemingly endless tide of illegal refugees from China is becoming a sore point. It is estimated that nearly 20,000 have made the perilous trip to the U.S. alone during the last two decades. And China’s accession to the World Trade Organization will spark a bitter debate in the U.S. Congress as it considers whether to give Beijing permanent most-favored-nation status. All of these issues will influence that vote.

This was not supposed to happen. The deal to work out the terms by which China would join the WTO was going to lessen frictions between the two countries. Similarly, the agreement on compensation in the wake of the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade eliminated a huge obstacle in the bilateral relationship.

Instead, the Chinese government’s weaknesses have become more apparent. Although the economy is projected to recover this year, the slowdown last year revealed how tenuous the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy is. The rise of religious groups reflects the void at the heart of Chinese society, and the government will permit no other force to command the allegiance of its citizens. Beijing takes that threat very seriously: Last year, the campaign against the Falun Gong was declared “a major political struggle.” That is also why Beijing directly challenged the Vatican by appointing five Roman Catholic bishops in China the very same day that the pope appointed 12 bishops in Rome.

The defection of the 17th karmapa lama to India last week will compound the situation. The flight of the lama, the third most powerful religious figure in Tibet, is a blow to Chinese efforts to assert control over the region. Repression is sure to follow, which will further inflame the Congress.

The fallout from this nasty period is sure to hit Japan and other Asian nations. Any government willing to join the U.S. resolution at the U.N. will feel China’s wrath. That should not deter them, however. The U.N. Commission is precisely the place to challenge a nation’s human-rights record. After all, China has said that it is willing to abide by international covenants, so Beijing should be willing to accept the judgment of the international community. China must learn that it is not exempt from international norms. The WTO vote offers the chance to normalize economic relations between the two countries. It will be a difficult six months, but if China and the U.S. truly want to build a solid future, the pieces will be in place.

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