WASHINGTON — President Bush made it clear Thursday that when it comes to linking human rights to most-favored-nation trade benefits, his Administration has two vastly different approaches: one for China and another for the Soviet Union.
With China, the Administration considers these trade benefits to be largely a matter of economics, not politics. It seeks to avoid imposing any conditions or restrictions on the trade benefits based on political developments inside China, such as the violent crackdown against dissent in Beijing last June.
"MFN is not a special favor. It's not a concession. It's the basis of everyday trade," Bush said at his press conference Thursday morning in justifying his decision to extend trade benefits to China for another year.
Yet a few minutes later, explaining a denial of those same benefits to the Soviet Union, the President spoke as though such status is, indeed, a favor. He suggested that some political or human rights conditions would have to be met before the Soviet Union is granted these trade benefits, such as "some progress on the Lithuanian question."
"Well, I think there's a political climate in this country that would make it extraordinarily difficult to grant it (MFN status to the Soviet Union)," Bush said.
This inconsistency is echoed throughout the top levels of the Bush Administration. Last week, Secretary of State James A. Baker III suggested that the Soviet Union would be disqualified from obtaining most-favored-nation benefits if it uses "force or coercion" in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia. Of course, force and coercion are exactly what China used against pro-democracy demonstrators a year ago.
Why are such seemingly conflicting principles applied to China and the Soviet Union? To some extent, it may be merely a matter of inertia--of the Bush Administration's failing to respond quickly enough to the political changes in the two countries.
But there also appear to be several other factors at work: the contradictions inherent in U.S. laws concerning most-favored-nation trade benefits, the differing U.S. strategic perspective towards the two countries and the historic U.S. commercial interest in trade with China.
Inconsistency in linking the trade benefits and human rights concerns is nothing new.
Washington has not hesitated to use human rights issues as grounds for denying trade benefits to the Soviet Union and, in the past, some other Communist regimes, such as Poland and Romania. But in many other cases, it has granted most-favored trade benefits without regard to a particular government's policies. Iraq and Syria both enjoy MFN status. So does South Africa.
These contradictions are embodied in U.S. law. Until 1951, the United States granted most-favored status to all countries. But as the Cold War unfolded, new legislation was approved suspending the benefits to any country dominated by a Communist system.
As part of its effort at detente with the Soviet Union, the Nixon Administration sought in 1972 to grant most-favored status to Moscow. But two years later, angered by restrictions on emigration of Soviet Jews, Congress passed a new provision called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that allowed a Communist country to regain trade benefits only if it allows substantially free emigration of its citizens.
When China first sought most-favored trade benefits in 1979, no one in Washington was particularly interested in asking too many tough questions about its emigration policies. China's canny leader, Deng Xiaoping, quickly recognized that the United States was unenthusiastic about the idea of free emigration from China. Whenever former President Jimmy Carter and members of Congress broached Jackson-Vanik, Deng had a quick response: "That is no problem to us," he said. "But do you really want 10 million Chinese?"
Carter got the point; China got the trade benefits.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment remains on the books today. And like his predecessors, Bush continues to enforce tough standards in judging Soviet emigration policies, while judging China with much greater tolerance.
The Soviet Union in recent years has opened the way for the emigration of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews. At his press conference Thursday, Bush gave no recognition of this. Instead, he emphasized laws instead of numbers.
"The Soviets have not passed the necessary emigration legislation," he said.
Meanwhile, over the last year China has adopted new regulations that severely restrict the ability of students to leave the country for study abroad. But Bush did not mention these new curbs Thursday. Instead, he said he was generally satisfied with China's emigration policies.
Bush's decision Thursday also demonstrates that the centuries-old Western eagerness for trade with Cathay remains alive.
"Lose this (China) market and we lose American jobs," Bush said. That is an argument no American President has ever made, in public, about the Soviet Union.