Dealing with the dragon Clinton on China: Summit meeting with President Jiang a key test of U.S. policy.

November 22, 1996

PRESIDENT CLINTON tells intimates that of all the countries in the world, China is the nation that baffles and frustrates him the most. A politician who often exploits his ability to influence others in one-on-one contacts, Mr. Clinton is described as feeling he has been unable to connect with the Chinese officials he has met.

This situation will be put to the test Sunday when Mr. Clinton meets with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Manila. U.S. relations with China have deteriorated as a result of human rights abuses by the Beijing regime, American support of Taiwan, Chinese protectionism, U.S. obstruction of China's entry into the World Trade Organization and China's export of nuclear technology.

Both countries would be well-served if Mr. Clinton and Mr. Jiang can agree that predictable differences between two superpowers should not obscure their very wide and deep common interests. China needs the continued presence of U.S. troops in Japan to prevent a rebirth of militarism there. The United States needs China to help keep the Russians in check in the Pacific-Asia sphere.

Beyond such security considerations is their economic synergy. With a quarter of the world population, China embodies a low-wage work force that is at once a vast market and a mighty exporting force. How it interacts with a high-wage, technologically superior U.S. will affect the prosperity of both. It is in the American interest to draw China increasingly into international organizations which the U.S. will dominate, at least for the next few decades.

Both China and the United States have made mistakes that account for the end of an era of good feeling that began with Henry Kissinger's secret visits to China a quarter-century ago. The end of the Cold War and the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 ushered in strains that culminated in the dangerous Taiwan face-off earlier this year.

That crisis should serve as a wake-up call. The U.S. was reminded that it was committed to the "one-China" doctrine. China was forewarned that any attempt to take Taiwan by force would incur a U.S. military response.

Perhaps now cooler heads in both governments will see the perils of conflict, confrontation and containment. Perhaps they will seek to emphasize where they can benefit by getting along. Sherpas preparing for the Clinton-Jiang summit have been stressing such lofty and benign aims. Beginning Sunday, the two presidents should bring these intentions to reality. Each has no greater foreign policy obligation.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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