Clinton China quandary: The beauty is the beast How much longer can he ignore Beijing's violations on trade, arms, rights?

February 15, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton confronts a dangerous quandary in dealing with China against the backdrop of war threats this week in the Taiwan Strait:

How does he get China to stop saber rattling and deal with its trade violations and exports of dangerous weapons without hurting U.S. business or harming himself politically?

American intelligence officials believe Beijing has sold ring magnets to Pakistan, boosting that country's ability to produce nuclear weapons, and of selling missile guidance systems to Iran.

Not only would these sales violate international rules on proliferation of dangerous weapons, but they are seen to fuel instability in two of the world's most combustible hot spots: the Middle East and South Asia.

The administration also accuses Chinese producers of flagrantly violating trade agreements with the piracy of copyrighted American recordings, such as compact discs, video recordings and computer software.

More than just these two transgressions is at stake, administration officials say: With 1.2 billion people and a rapidly growing economy, China is the world's next superpower.

The United States needs it to be predictable and to play by acceptable international norms.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry put it bluntly this week:

"Our policy accepts China at its word when it says that it wants to become a responsible world power. But China sends quite the opposite message when it conducts missile tests and large military maneuvers off Taiwan, when it exports nuclear weapons technology or abuses human rights."

President Clinton has the power to punish China severely, by imposing commercial sanctions valued at up to $10 billion. But since trade is a two-way street, he can't punish China without causing pain to American companies and U.S. workers in an election year.

'Moral principle counts'

Sensitive to the charge that President Clinton's foreign policy is largely driven by commerce, an administration official insisted yesterday, "Moral principle counts every bit as much as trade and jobs."

Mr. Clinton's top foreign policy advisers failed in a meeting earlier this week to arrive at a strategy. While another meeting may be held next week, the administration official said a resolution could be several weeks off.

Setting aside the trade and political consequences, the advisers need to weigh two questions, the official said: How tough do they have to be to get China's attention? If they're too tough, do they invite a backlash?

Complicating the problem, officials say, is some ambiguity in the evidence of weapons violations, with hard-liners at the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency disagreeing with the State Department.

President Clinton has the option of using his authority to waive penalties in the case of the weapons transfers even if the evidence is solid. But if precedent is any guide, this may not win him any points with Beijing.

Faced with a similar dilemma two years ago, Mr. Clinton decided against punishing China for its human rights abuses by cutting back on its favorable trade privileges.

Human rights violations have persisted, including the use of prison labor to produce exports.

The latest flare-up between the United States and China comes just as Clinton administration officials were catching their breath after the last nasty episode between the two countries.

That occurred when China, furious over signs of an American "tilt" toward Taiwan, downgraded diplomatic relations last summer between Washington and Beijing.

It took a summit between President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin to repair that damage, thus finally allowing former Sen. Jim Sasser -- after months of delay -- to take up his post as the new U.S. ambassador to Beijing this week.

Even more than most presidents, Mr. Clinton is constrained in his policy toward China by growing pressure from Congress.

Most likely, the eventual Republican presidential nominee will only add to this pressure.

GOP's pro-Taiwan bloc

While neither American political party has a unified policy toward China, the Congressional Republican leadership has increasingly become dominated by an anti-Chinese, pro-Taiwan bloc.

Last year, this bloc successfully pressured the Clinton administration into a policy shift toward Taiwan, allowing President Lee Teng-Hui to visit Cornell University.

Congress is making it increasingly difficult for President Clinton to overlook Chinese lapses on weapons proliferation and human rights.

Indeed, a number of House members of both parties have sent Mr. Clinton a letter demanding that the United States lead an effort at next month's meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva "to condemn China's violations of internationally recognized human rights."

Some in Congress -- including longtime China foe Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- want the administration to go beyond its recent vague warnings to China and commit itself publicly to Taiwan's defense.

There is also growing sentiment on Capitol Hill to grant Taiwan at least a measure of diplomatic standing, upsetting the delicate legal balance that now exists between the United States, China and Taiwan.

Charles W. Freeman Jr., a retired high-level U.S. diplomat with experience in China, warns that a deepening U.S.-China rift over Taiwan could "overthrow the entire Asian-Pacific strategic balance," not just poisoning U.S. relations with China but weakening the U.S.-Japan alliance and reigniting rivalry between China and Japan.

As Mr. Clinton has already learned, nothing he does regarding China will be cost free.

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