Coping with a paranoid China Sasser's mission: ambassador from U.S. to China, or to Congress?

February 17, 1996

RELATIONS between China and the U.S. are more complex than either admits. On Wednesday, former Sen. James R. Sasser presented credentials as U.S. ambassador in Beijing. This ended a harmful eight-month void caused by the irresponsible delay in confirmation engineered by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. During it, Chinese spokesmen had been uttering threats on everything from Taiwan relations to trade disputes.

On Thursday, a Chinese rocket was to launch a U.S. corporation's communications satellite, no matter what the two regimes were saying. It exploded on the pad, destroying the satellite. U.S. and Chinese commercial interests went up in the same smoke.

Also on Thursday, Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, put his prestige on the line telling reporters, "We do not believe that [China has] the capability to conduct amphibious operations of the nature that would be necessary to invade Taiwan." So much for China's saber-rattling and excited congressional response to it. Many military experts believe Taiwan's powerful air force would destroy an invading flotilla in the Taiwan Strait without help from the U.S.

Ian Johnson, The Sun's Beijing correspondent, trenchantly identified the problems facing Ambassador Sasser: a growing consensus among Chinese opinion-makers that the U.S. is not fair in criticizing China, resentment at being held to arms control agreements that China was excluded from negotiating, and military independence of President Jiang.

Also on Thursday, China ordered people with Internet access to register with police. The paranoid regime wants modernization, but with old-fashioned thought control. Good luck.

That's a lot on Ambassador Sasser's plate, not to mention the penchant of the Senate Republican majority to impose its own China policy without reference to reality. The Tennessean is no old China hand, but he does know his way around Capitol Hill. Perhaps he will turn out to be less President Clinton's ambassador to China than his emissary to the Senate on the China question. Mr. Clinton needs one.

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