Despite Recent Concessions, U.S.-China Relations Still Deteriorating

October 27, 1991|By ROBERT BENJAMIN

BEIJING — Beijing. -- China announced last week that a Shanghai publishing house has purchased the rights to "Scarlett," the best-selling sequel to "Gone with the Wind." The news was notable not as a cultural oddity -- the original novel has long been popular here -- but as a concession to the United States on the problem of violations of American copyrights here.

Such concessions by China have been fairly frequent this year on a wide range of issues of mounting concern to the United States. They include: vows to stop exporting prison-made goods; cooperation within the United Nations Security Council on arms control; engaging in human-rights dialogues with foreign delegations, and pledges to reduce Chinese import barriers.

But these and other conciliatory moves by China have been too little and have come too late to stem a profound deterioration in Sino-American relations -- a downward trend that poses significant risks for both countries' interests.

The current portfolio of friction between the United States and China is stuffed with difficult issues. It includes conflicts over China's human rights abuses, trade practices and arms sales, to name only a few of the major problems. But in many ways these disputes are not new, and diplomats here on both sides believe that they ultimately could be solved with patience and pragmatism.

What is new, however, is that domestic political considerations within both notions are increasingly becoming a key factor in the bilateral fray -- with debilitating consequences. As a U.S. diplomat here last week described it: "The relationship has become like a Marine free-fire exercise."

On the American side, two factors account for this: President Bush might be vulnerable in next year's election on his policy of sticking by China; and China's strategic importance to the United States has been diminished by Soviet communism's collapse.

So both the administration and particularly its critics recently have shown more a lot more willingness to pressure China.

"Given the changes in the rest of the world, many people are disappointed that China is not changing, so they have become more emboldened," said another U.S. diplomat here. "Things actually have not deteriorated so much as the patience of people who want China to be a pluralistic democracy, which is not a realistic expectation."

On the Chinese side, the domestic factors are not entirely dissimilar. While there are not free elections here, there is an on-going, multi-faceted leadership struggle. With a Communist Party plenum likely later this year and a party congress set for next year, internal political conflicts appear sharper -- conflicts in which anti-Americanism and national integrity in the face of foreign pressure are useful themes for the party's most conservative elders.

"The Chinese people are very sensitive to intervention in their affairs by foreigners for historical reasons," said a senior Chinese foreign ministry scholar who was deeply involved in the two nations' rapprochement in the 1970s. "It's not possible for us to ,, allow China to be pushed around by American sentiment. It would give the impression to the Chinese people that their government is not strong enough."

At the moment, American pressure on China is focused on trade issues. The United States has begun two investigations of trade practices here. One is aimed at China's failure to protect foreign intellectual property rights; the other is examining import barriers believed to account for part of China's rapidly increasing annual trade surplus with the United States, a surplus likely to surpass $12 billion this year.

Additionally, a criminal investigation is under way in New York to determine if two dozen Chinese state companies have evaded hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. customs duties.

A U.S. trade negotiator was in Beijing this week for high-level talks, but Friday he had little progress to report. If the trade and other disputes continue to fester, one of the most important elements of Sino-American relations, China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status with the United States, could be in real jeopardy -- leading to a disastrous cycle of retaliation.

The favorable trade status allows Chinese imports to enter the United States under the lowest possible tariffs. President Bush has recommended annual renewal of MFN, but Congressional opposition has been growing and could enlarge sufficiently by next summer to revoke it or attach to it conditions onerous for China.

Loss of MFN would cost China's export industries hundreds of thousands of jobs and perhaps lead to greater political instability. While vowing to prepare for the worst, Chinese Premier Li Peng has called MFN "the cornerstone" of United States-China relations and likened its possible revocation to a threat of dropping a nuclear bomb on China.

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