Hard choices on China policy

March 17, 1994|By Jim Mann

Washington -- SECRETARY of State Warren Christopher's just-completed human-rights mission to Beijing was aimed at making China a less sensitive issue on the Clinton administration's foreign policy agenda.

Instead, Mr. Christopher's lack of results and the avalanche of vitriol the trip inspired from both sides has done the reverse: It has catapulted China to the top of the list of America's problems overseas, creating dilemmas for which there will be no easy solutions. And it has underlined some of the seeming contradictions in the administration's policy toward China.

How, then, and to what extent should America confront China for human rights abuses that violate what Mr. Christopher accurately calls America's "core values"?

Should the United States accommodate a regime, which, less than five years ago, used live ammunition against citizens on the streets of its capital? Beijing has voiced no regrets for doing so and has changed few of its top personnel since then.

Mr. Christopher and his aides argue that, while in Beijing, the secretary delivered a tough message to the regime, one which Chinese Premier Li Peng and President Jiang Zemin needed to hear. China, he said, needed to do more to retain its low-tariff trade benefits in the U.S.

Yet whatever Mr. Christopher said, the Chinese leaders probably got a different message. They saw that Mr. Christopher had come, talking about the need for a broader relationship between Washington and Beijing, even at a time when the regime was showing its people and the rest of Asia that it could do whatever it wanted to suppress peaceful dissent and opposition.

If the Clinton administration wanted only to deliver a tough message to Beijing about its human rights policies, one which the Chinese leadership would have understood without ambiguity, cancelling the trip might been a more effective way of making the point.

But there were other purposes to Mr. Christopher's visit, which could not have been achieved through a cancellation. The truth is that the Clinton administration also wanted, through Mr. Christopher's trip, to improve its ties to Beijing.

The American business community -- fearing it would lose out to foreign competitors, including the French and Japanese, whose prime ministers will soon visit Beijing -- wants to smooth over the human rights disputes to ensure there will be continued trade with China. And the Pentagon wants to work more closely with China on important issues, including North Korea and nuclear nonproliferation.

These factors help explain why Mr. Christopher chose not to cancel his visit. But they also underscore the mixed message the administration is sending to Beijing.

For a short time, the problem might be fudged. But ultimately the president may find he has to impose some discipline on his China policy, making hard choices among the separate and conflicting agendas of human rights, commerce and military strategy.

Jim Mann writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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