First it was the spy plane. Then it was the United States arms package to Taiwan. More recently, there was the stopover in New York by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and a visit to the White House by Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Sino-US relations have been subjected to a whirlwind of thorny issues in the past few weeks. What if it was a 'calculated strategy' on the part of the administration of President George W. Bush? With the obvious exception of the spy plane incident, such is the theory of former White House counsel Arthur Culvahouse. 'What they may be doing is to take those actions in order to appease the China hawks in the United States - the people who view China as a dangerous adversary - in order to better assure efforts to get Congress approval of NTR (normal trading relations),' said the chairman of US law firm O'Melveny & Myers during a brief stopover in Hong Kong. 'It could be part of a calculated strategy.' The US president has until Sunday to announce his intention to extend NTR to China. The problem, however, lies in convincing Congress. Critics in the House are already planning to challenge the decision. Although Congress voted to extend permanent NTR to China last year, the relevant bill was conditional on China's being a member of the World Trade Organisation. As this has not yet happened, by law Congress must return to the annual review process. 'How many Democrat members of the House and Senate who supported NTR a year ago are there who did so only because the Clinton White House asked them to and convinced them to do so?,' he said. 'And ask how many Republicans support it.' He believed the administration was appealing to these people, though he conceded that unless the situation drastically worsened, NTR would go through. As for WTO entry: 'I would think they are saying, 'Let's get it through by the fall'.' Mr Culvahouse had first-hand experience of the Washington political labyrinth as legal counsel to former president Ronald Reagan between 1987 and 1989. His first task was to work on the Iran-Contra investigation. A 22-month stint in the White House and the ties he has retained with present staff such as Vice-President Dick Cheney leave him with a 'pretty good feel' for the Bush administration. He describes the president as someone who 'has a distaste for ambiguity, a very open speaker'. After hitting the 100-day mark recently, the Bush regime, however, remains 'thinly staffed', according to Mr Culvahouse. 'I am very concerned about the slow pace in getting their people in office,' he said, noting that 3,000 jobs in the executive change hands when the president changes. 'As of [last] Monday, only 55 had been confirmed by the Senate.' This translates to barely 10 per cent. Mr Culvahouse's firm has been doing background checks for White House appointees. He has also recently been involved in high-profile cases representing the International Olympic Committee and tyre manufacturer Firestone. Last week he was in China for talks with the minister of justice. Like most international law firms, his is keen to bolster its presence in the mainland. At present, foreign firms may only open an office in one city. O'Melveny & Myers hopes to have a second in Beijing, although this is now tied in to WTO agreements to open China's professional services market.