More China trade - but no deal

Zhu visit: Progress made but other issues interfere with path to entry in the World Trade Organization.

April 11, 1999

PRESIDENT Clinton and China's Prime Minister Zhu Rongji must be taken at their word that they failed to reach an agreement to pave the entry of China into the World Trade Organization.

But some skepticism is in order after Mr. Zhu's two-day stop in Washington. They announced substantial progress long sought by U.S. business and farm interests.

China will drop barriers to an array of U.S. farm produce. This is particularly welcome to wheat growers of the Northwest and the hard-pressed pork industry.

Commercial air flights between the two countries will double over the next two years, increasing the carriers and the cities served.

China says it is ordering its government agencies to quit using pirated computer software. It began moves to open telecommunications and insurance markets to U.S. companies.

More entry to China's market is promised for U.S. firms when China is in the 134-member world trade club, not before. Vague promises and China's lack of modern commercial law make companies wary.

But the real obstacle to announcing a comprehensive trade agreement may lie in Congress. The Clinton administration has adopted the China policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The party of opposition, then and now, worries about espionage, subversion of U.S. institutions and suppression of human rights in China -- all very real concerns.

There is a "Perils of Pauline" quality to the annual congressional vote on continuing normal trading relations with China. Rejection undermines any trade agreement by the administration.

Possible espionage is a scare now; Chinese contributions to the 1996 Democratic campaign is another. Each ought to be investigated fully, chips falling where they may.

Whatever is found cannot disguise the Reagan administration's policy of thrusting military technology on China. The United States has spied on countries with which it was trading, and traded with countries on which it was spying. So have its partners and rivals.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Zhu hinted strongly that they are close to the comprehensive trade agreement that eluded them. They may have concluded that the political climate is not propitious.

It remains in the U.S. national interest, regardless of which party occupies the White house, to rope China into the world community and bring it into the World Trade Organization as soon as it complies with rules binding on any major economic powers.

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