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THE ASIA BOOM : U.S. View : Foreign Policy Up for Grabs With New Congress : Republican victories will affect relations with Asia. Most in Washington see China and Vietnam as losers, Japan as winner.

November 29, 1994|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — By now, President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher are probably tired of being asked what the political upheavals of America's midterm elections mean for Asia.

On all stops of their trips across the Pacific earlier this month, prime ministers and foreign ministers bombarded the President and the secretary of state with questions about the impact of the Republican victories.

Christopher, for instance, was forced to deal with the issue within a few hours of the polls closing on Nov. 8 in California and other western states.

It was already Wednesday afternoon in Seoul. Cable News Network and the Korean Broadcasting System were reporting that the Democrats had lost both houses of Congress.

Not surprisingly, South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo popped the question of what was going to happen to Clinton's foreign policy.

The secretary of state talked about consensus, bipartisanship and continuity. In Seoul and a couple of days later, before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, forum in Jakarta, Indonesia, he tried to soothe the Asian leaders' anxieties.

Clinton himself, less than a day after arriving in Asia, blandly announced that there would be no problem.

"I don't expect (the elections) to have any impact on our foreign policy," the President told a press conference in the Philippines.

That was the diplomatically correct, politically proper position to take. What should a President say, that his foreign policy is up for grabs?

Yet his subordinates and others in Washington were already speculating on how the election returns will affect their policies and plans for the next two years.

The conclusion: Among Asian governments, China seems to be the main loser in the American elections, and Japan appears to be the biggest winner.

That, at least, is the judgment of Clinton Administration officials and Capitol Hill staffers as they try to calculate what the new, Republican-controlled Congress that convenes in January will mean for American policy toward Asia.

The new Congress could bring forth new friction between Washington and Beijing. The tension will probably not center on China's most-favored-nation trade benefits, as it has for the past four years.

Rather, it will be on non-economic issues of the sort that may seem symbolic to Congress but will produce howls of outrage in Beijing.

"I'm not worried about trade," confided one U.S. official handling China policy. "The Republicans are the free-trade party.

"But we could have a lot of trouble with congressional resolutions on Taiwan and Tibet," he added, mentioning two cases that Beijing prefers to keep out of the public arena.

In shoring up support for its China policy over the past two years, the Clinton Administration has necessarily devoted most of its attention to overcoming opposition from within the Democratic Party.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco were among those who wanted to link any renewal of China's MFN benefits to improvements in its human rights record.

Last May, after China had stonewalled the Administration's pleas to improve its human rights policies, Clinton yielded and decided to extend the MFN benefits unconditionally.

He later won a lopsided 280-152 vote in Congress over those who still wanted to restrict China's trade privileges.

With that vote, the steam went out of the MFN issue. Chinese leaders finally seemed to have found a working accommodation with the Democratic President who, in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, had denounced the "butchers" of Beijing.

In the new Congress next January, the forces that sought to restrict China's MFN benefits will be weaker. Mitchell is retiring, Gephardt and Pelosi are in the minority party, and there will be fewer traditional, labor-oriented Democrats to join their cause against Chinese human rights practices. The Republicans, who have historically favored free trade, will be running the show.

Yet the Republicans include a number of lawmakers who have raised different sorts of complaints about U.S. policy toward China. And they will suddenly find themselves in new positions of power in the new Congress.

The list starts with the man slated to be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who has for years denounced China's Communist regime, supported Taiwan and the cause of independence for Tibet. And on these issues, Helms has some prominent supporters among his fellow Republicans.

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