For GOP, a fine line on China policy Efffort to uphold favorable trade status invites sharp criticism

Focus shifts from Clinton

July 21, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Chinese dissidents, human rights activists and Christian conservatives will travel to Capitol Hill today to denounce U.S. policies in China, just as they did last month before President Clinton's trip to that country.

But this time, the opponents will be lambasting the same Republican leaders they stood shoulder to shoulder with in June, the same leaders who for months have assailed Clinton's China policies but who tomorrow will push to uphold China's most favored nation trade status.

Indeed, Republican leaders have found themselves walking a fine line between their attacks on Clinton's outreach to China and their support for U.S. corporations that want open trade with the largest consumer market in the world.

Critics say the Republicans cannot assail Clinton for coddling the Chinese with a lax export-control policy or a military welcome at Tiananmen Square, then quickly vote to extend China's most favored nation status.

Joel Segal, the American director of the dissident Free China Movement, accused some congressional Republicans of trying to have it both ways, "using the China card to bash Clinton" while placating corporate campaign contributors with their support of China's favorable trade status.

But Republican leaders say there is nothing inconsistent about maintaining open trade with China even as they conduct investigations into whether that trade allowed U.S. satellite makers to transfer sensitive technology to the Chinese missile industry or helped the Chinese funnel illegal money into U.S. political campaigns. The nation's policies toward China must include a carrot as well as a stick, leadership aides say.

"I think American companies can sell cars in China without selling American satellite technology," said Terry Holt, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference.

Vote in support of Taiwan

Last night, Republican leaders tried to draw a distinction between trade policies and diplomatic or national security issues that divide the United States and China. They pushed a nonbinding resolution affirming U.S. military and diplomatic support for Taiwan, saying the resolution was needed to undo the harm wrought by Clinton's statements last month that some say seemed to tilt U.S. policy further toward mainland China. The resolution passed 390-1, with only Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, opposing it.

But in broaching the subject of Sino-American relations, Republican leaders invited criticism from Democrats and other opponents of open trade relations. Only opposition to most favored nation status would prove that the Republicans are sincere about getting tough on China, they say.

"There's been this cynical attempt on the part of the [Republican] leadership to make problems for the president on a policy on which they are in complete agreement," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who served as the Republicans' key Democratic ally last month in denouncing Clinton's trip to China. "All this pounding of their chests has just been a diversion as they do exactly what the Chinese government wants them to do."

Beyond politics

Favorable trade relations with China go beyond politics to nuts-and-bolts business dealings that can be vital to U.S. companies, supporters contend. Frederick Brewing Co., a microbrewery in Maryland, for instance, just signed a deal to export beer to China that could boost production by 20 percent, said Kevin Brannon, the company's chairman and chief executive. Conversely, the brewery depends on Chinese hemp seeds for its hemp beer, because growing such seeds is illegal in the United States.

"A trade war with China would very likely cut us off from both the export and import markets we want to be in," Brannon said. "We're a struggling, young company. Keeping us out of anything we need to be in is bad for us and bad for employment."

Split in GOP leadership

Top Republican leaders are split. California Rep. Christopher Cox, a member of the leadership who is chairman of the special committee investigating the Chinese missile trade, opposes extending China's favorable trade status. So does Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon of New York, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

Arrayed against them are the three top members of the House leadership -- Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both of Texas.

The tension over that split has increased since Republican leaders unleashed their allegations last year that the Chinese tried to influence U.S. elections with illegal campaign contributions to Democrats, have concealed forced abortions and human organ sales, have threatened Taiwan militarily, and have colluded with U.S. satellite makers to improve the accuracy of their ballistic missiles.

Behind the conflict is the tug of war between social conservatives and business interests. The Republican leadership's sharp denunciations of Clinton's outreach to China last month helped placate the party's restive religious right. But they angered business leaders who help bankroll the party.

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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