New mega-embassies underscore close U.S., China ties

The new U.S. embassy in Beijing, China.
The new U.S. embassy in Beijing, China. Jack Chang / MCT

BEIJING — The new U.S. Embassy in the Chinese capital is a sprawling maze of glass and concrete that's the second biggest construction project in the history of the State Department. President Bush himself will inaugurate the complex Friday.

Last week, Chinese officials opened their own giant embassy in Washington, which, at 250,000 square feet, is the biggest embassy in the U.S. capital.

The almost simultaneous inaugurations of the two mega-embassies weren't a coincidence, U.S. officials said. The two superpowers have been working for years to synchronize the openings days before Friday's start of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The two countries wanted to send a clear message to the world that Chinese-U.S. ties were what U.S. Ambassador to China Clark T. Randt Jr. called "the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century."

"Our new embassy together with the impressive new Chinese Embassy in Washington . . . are tangible symbols of the growth and importance of our bilateral relationship," Randt said Tuesday.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi used the same lofty language July 29 while inaugurating the Chinese Embassy in Washington, which was designed by the firm of renowned Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei.

Bush will further highlight those ties when he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday in Beijing.

That relationship has solidified as trade between the countries booms, totaling $387 billion in commerce last year, said Kenneth Lieberthal, a University of Michigan political science professor who specializes in Chinese studies.

China is the United States' second-biggest trading partner, behind Canada, and only the European Union recorded a higher volume of trade with China than the United States did last year.

China is also the biggest holder of U.S. government and private debt, with estimates pegging the amount at more than $1 trillion.

"The U.S. and China economy are linked from head to foot," Lieberthal said. "We need each other dramatically."

Economic closeness, however, hasn't necessarily led to trust between the countries, as the anti-intelligence safeguards installed at the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing reveal.

While 1,500 Chinese construction workers helped build the $434 million embassy's consular section and administrative offices, the U.S. government brought in several hundred workers and tons of materials from the United States for the embassy's eight-story main tower, where the ambassador's office and other sensitive facilities are.

U.S. security concerns were so high that embassy officials didn't even allow Chinese, American and other reporters to enter the main tower during a media tour Tuesday.

When project architect John Hollerman was asked why the U.S. workers were used on the main building, he responded, "Moscow." That's where U.S. officials had to tear down much of their new embassy in the mid-1980s when they found it riddled with microphones and other surveillance devices.

In Beijing, the United States spent about $130 million on security and other measures as "assurance that this building would not be compromised like the Moscow building was," Hollerman said.

U.S. worries have been stoked by a number of recent Chinese spying cases, including the 2005 arrest and eventual conviction of U.S. citizen Chi Mak for selling naval technology secrets to Chinese officials.

The Chinese government, for its part, seemed to have the same concerns when it used hundreds of its own workers to build its embassy in Washington, despite criticism from American unions.

Such distrust has arisen as the two countries increasingly become rivals for global political and economic leadership, said Charles Freeman, a China expert at the Washington-based research center the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"We have fundamentally different philosophies on some issues," Freeman said. "As China rises, we have to ask whether that's a threat to the U.S."

U.S. officials downplayed the tensions Tuesday, saying the United States was eager to help China become the world leader it deserved to be.

"We have tried to establish ourselves here as a partner that is working to help bring China into the modern world," said William Prior, the project manager on the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. "As you can see here, China has made great strides."

The cooperation extended to the construction of the embassies, including mutual aid between the governments to find and purchase sites for their facilities.

The five-building U.S. Embassy complex sits on 10 acres in the heart of Beijing and features 500,000 square feet of space. Some 900 employees will work at the complex, which will include a bustling consulate office that adjudicates about 6,000 nonimmigrant visa applications every week.

It's a dramatic turnaround for two countries that established diplomatic ties only in 1979, after the death of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Since then, China's economy has grown by almost 10 percent a year and become a global powerhouse.

The United States clearly has taken notice. Among all its embassies worldwide, the new complex in Beijing will be smaller in size only than the one in Iraq.

More from McClatchy:

China fails to keep promises it made to win Olympic Games

China apologizes for police beating of foreign journalists