U.S., China sign pact to expand ties

August 30, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- A day into what was supposed to be a feel-good mission and billion-dollar bonanza for big business, several nagging complaints continued to dog U.S.-China relations.

Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's visit, hailed as a "historic turning point" in the two superpowers' relations, has indeed seen one important agreement signed, as well as a few multi-million-dollar contracts inked.

Yesterday, for example, Westinghouse Corp. nailed down a $140 million contract to supply turbines to a power plant in Jiangsu province, while Pitney Bowes signed a $20 million contract to automate some of China's 55,000 post offices.

More important, Mr. Brown and his Chinese counterpart, Wu Yi, signed a broad framework agreement that will set up a special institute based in the Commerce Department to handle business-to-business problems. The idea is to increase cooperation in key areas, such as chemicals, power, aviation and services, where U.S. companies are strong and Chinese demand is great. The two sides are also to have regular meetings to prevent trade problems from escalating and to discuss areas of cooperation.

But the visit's frameworks and big-dollar contracts have to some degree been overshadowed by two unexpected developments: yet another crackdown on China's battered dissidents and a new hard-line position with the United States on sticky trade issues.

On human rights, the Beijing government picked the very weekend the U.S. delegation was arriving to arrest student democracy leader Wang Dan, one of the few remaining prominent dissidents who is not in jail or in exile. Mr. Wang was TC released Sunday after 13 hours of detention, but not before Mr. Brown was peppered with questions about how he would respond.

Yesterday evening, senior administration officials said Mr. Brown had brought up human rights in his discussion with Premier Li Peng, a hard-liner who supported the massacre of hundreds of government opponents in 1989. But they said Mr. Brown's comments were "private," even though his mission had "presidential" status, meaning he did not have to confine his public remarks to commercial matters.

The human rights issue, which caused the five-year chill in Sino-U.S. relations that Mr. Brown is trying to end, was supposed to have been put behind the two countries when President Clinton decided in May that he would not make trading dependent on progress in human rights.

Although critics said this concession to the Communist authorities would take away Washington's leverage and make it tougher to win release of political and religious prisoners, the administration said it would be able to lobby more effectively for human rights if it were not linked to trade in a direct manner.

Now, playing host to the first major U.S. delegation to China since that decision was made, the Chinese government "has not seemed able to resist throwing a dissident in jail, just to thumb its nose at the U.S.," a Western diplomat said.

Human rights experts said they doubted that Mr. Wang's arrest and the house arrest of several other dissidents was calculated to humiliate the U.S. commerce secretary.

More likely, said Robin Munro of Human Rights Watch/Asia, is this scenario: The police put the dissidents under extremely tight surveillance out of fear that they would contact the trade mission; the dissidents chafed at the extra restrictions; they protested; and one landed in jail.

"Far more disappointing to me is that the administration is falling into line with Beijing's conditions for allowing U.S. conglomerates into the market, which is, don't mention human rights and you can do business," Mr. Munro said.

Even that equation, however, didn't seem to be enough yesterday, as Chinese officials essentially gave Mr. Brown two new ultimatums, this time on trade issues.

Mrs. Wu, the Chinese minister of foreign trade and economic cooperation, bluntly told Mr. Brown that if China were not able to join GATT in the near future, U.S.-China business ties would be hurt.

The official New China News Agency said yesterday that Mrs. Wu would make a final package of concessions in the coming days that would show China's "maximum extent of its concessions."

In return, China would expect a speedy end to negotiations -- in China's favor.

Both countries have been wrangling over membership in the international trade agreement partnership because they differ over what status China should have as a new member. China wants to be admitted as a developing country, which would give it greater access to U.S. markets, while Washington wants it to have "industrialized" status, which would make it harder to put up protective walls against U.S. exports.

Mrs. Wu also told Mr. Brown that the United States had until the end of September to ease restrictions on textile imports or face countermeasures.

Part of China's leverage comes from the supposedly huge amount of money it wants to invest in infrastructure projects. Some estimates put the total spending on infrastructure over the next six years at $600 billion, an astronomical figure that probably won't be met but that has caused a flood of countries to try to curry goodwill with China by selling their country's products at rock-bottom prices.

Mr. Brown shared in the enthusiasm yesterday, saying he would lobby for $25 billion in U.S. contracts in the near future and another $250 billion in longer-term projects.

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