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White House to Review China Policy : Asia: Secretary of state calls top-level meeting to determine whether U.S. will continue to pursue tough human rights stand.

March 19, 1994|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the wake of his turbulent Beijing visit, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has asked senior American officials to meet early next week to review U.S.-China policy and determine whether President Clinton and his Administration will continue to support a tough human rights stand.

In essence, one senior State Department official said Friday, Christopher will ask, "Do I have any soldiers marching with me on China?"

State Department officials said it will be up to the President to decide where the balance should be struck between confronting China over human rights abuses, on the one hand, and advancing U.S. commercial and strategic interests by improving ties with Beijing, on the other.

The meeting, which will include Christopher and other Cabinet-level officials, is the first hint that the Administration may be about to shift course on China policy.

But another senior State Department official predicted that there will be no major changes.

"The domestic divisions (on China policy) aren't helping," this official conceded, adding: "The President is not going to go back on his commitments. This is important in terms of his credibility around the world."

Christopher has sought to carry out Clinton's May, 1993, executive order, which requires China to show "overall, significant progress" on human rights if it wants any extension of its low-tariff trade benefits after they expire in July.

But the order itself and the tough stance on human rights flowing from it have been deeply unpopular with other Administration officials, including some of those on the National Economic Council and in the Pentagon.

They argue that China could retaliate against the United States by penalizing U.S. businesses and by refusing to cooperate on other foreign policy issues, such as stopping North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Asked about next week's top-level meeting, Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said: "China is an important policy. We have a couple of months to go (before deciding what happens to China's trade benefits), and the secretary has just been to China."

Lord said the meeting will address the question of "Just where are we?" on China policy.

During the trip to Beijing last weekend, Christopher found himself in the awkward position of confronting the Chinese regime for its recent arrests of dissidents and urging improved ties.

In retrospect, some State Department officials now believe that the two goals may have been incompatible and that the result undermined the credibility of the secretary's warnings to Chinese leaders.

But others argue that the firm approach Christopher took in Beijing was correct and that it will produce results from Beijing over the next few months as long as Clinton and the rest of the Administration are unified.

"I can see the end game on this, if we can just get our domestic audience under control," one senior State Department official said. "The idea that we're in a box on China policy is overstated. The game is not over. The Chinese have a stake too."

The specific issue confronting the Administration is what to do about China's most-favored-nation status, under which Chinese goods are imported into this country with the same low duties enjoyed by most other nations.

Clinton's executive order calls on the secretary of state to recommend this spring whether to renew trade benefits next year, based on Christopher's judgment of whether the Chinese regime has made progress in several specified categories of human rights. These include, for example, China's policy toward Tibet, its treatment of political prisoners and its willingness to stop jamming Voice of America broadcasts.

On March 4, just as Christopher was about to leave for Asia, Chinese officials detained or arrested a number of dissidents, including Wei Jingsheng, the country's best-known democracy activist. Only a few days earlier, Wei had met in Beijing with John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for human rights.

When Christopher arrived in Beijing to press for human rights changes, Chinese officials greeted him with an avalanche of angry complaints that the United States was interfering in China's internal affairs. They seized on Shattuck's meeting with Wei as the focal point for their complaints.

A senior State Department official confirmed Friday that Christopher found out about Shattuck's meeting only after it occurred.

"It happened very quickly," the official said. "I don't believe it was cleared in advance by Christopher."

Shattuck told The Times in a telephone interview that "the embassy set the meeting up" with Wei. "On previous trips, I have routinely met with other people outside the government," he said.

* RELATED STORY: D1

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