THE REST of the world does not stop when a crisis such as Kosovo preoccupies Washington. The long-planned visit of China's Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Washington, today and tomorrow, takes place as if nothing else was going on.
Negotiations at a lower level are narrowing the gap that prevents the United States from agreeing to China's joining the World Trade Organization. The visit was meant to seal such an agreement.
Mr. Zhu is the smiling face of Chinese communism. The third-ranking member of Beijing's hierarchy, he is an economic reformer and the one who best knows how to talk to Americans.
Mr. Zhu needs to get China into the WTO to show some gains from reform. He needs to open China's economy to U.S. investment and competition so that Washington allows Beijing into the world trade club.
Other matters separating China and the United States are receiving attention during this trip, but none will be solved. These include China's crackdown on dissent, suppression of Tibet, threats to Taiwan, spying in the United States and alleged financial support for the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign.
What might be reached is a deal to bring China into the World Trade Organization, where the huge trading power belongs. That means it must also play by WTO rules, which its protectionism violates. For all the reservations Americans may have about China, the national interest lies in making China part of the world economic community, not keeping it out.
Whether good or bad for Vice President Al Gore's presidential aspirations -- and it would likely be mildly harmful -- the administration should seek a trade agreement to pave the way for China's entry into the WTO.
That does not mean accepting China's plea of poverty. China should enter as a major economic power, bound by the rules governing others. For what it is worth, China has obliged Washington by not devaluing its currency and is reportedly making concessions on trade. The administration should hold out for opening China's markets, but not burden the deal with nontrade issues.
President Clinton will be judged by history not only for what he decided about Kosovo this week, but also for what he decided about China.
Pub Date: 4/08/99