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China Emerges as Clinton's Knottiest Foreign Problem

Diplomacy: First-term goals on human rights are bent as Asian giant flexes its growing economic muscle.

September 08, 1996|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A few days after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, a team of top CIA officials set up shop in Little Rock's Comfort Inn, a 10-minute drive from the governor's mansion in Arkansas. The mission: to prepare the president-elect for the main foreign policy problems he was about to inherit.

As Clinton sipped Diet Coke, struggled with his neckties and prepared for news conferences, he and his CIA briefers ran through the top items of what is perhaps the world's most secret newsletter, the President's Daily Brief.

Their main preoccupation was Russia, according to a recent memoir by one of the CIA briefers. Next were Somalia and the former Yugoslav federation, followed by Iraq, world trade talks, Haiti, Israel and Lebanon.

Nowhere in the top ranks was the world's most populous country (1.2 billion people), whose standing armed forces (nearly 3 million strong) are the world's largest and whose annual economic growth rate in the past five years (approaching or exceeding 10%) is the envy of the world's rich countries.

That nation is China, and its absence provided a fitting introduction to what has become the Clinton administration's most intractable foreign policy problem: its inability to cope with China's gradual emergence as the world's newest superpower. In June, China surged past Japan to become the country that has the largest trade surplus with the United States, underscoring the fact that for trade, as for many other areas of foreign policy, China has become No. 1.

The administration took office talking tough about fomenting peaceful revolution in China. But once it was in power, its policies were marked by flip-flops and embarrassing retreats in response to pressure from several sources--the American business community, the U.S. Congress, Taiwan and China itself.

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As one major consequence, China has learned that it has considerable power to defy or resist U.S. policy. On issues such as human rights and trade, China is no longer as conciliatory in dealing with the United States as it was four years ago.

At one time, China was willing to release dissidents or offer outside access to its prisons when it was afraid of U.S. retaliation. But no more. Dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng, China's leading advocate of democracy, have been thrown back into jail, yet they are rarely mentioned by the Clinton administration.

Another result of the administration's inconsistency has been Taiwan's reappearance as a flash point, one that could set off a shooting war.

From the administration's point of view, the fault lies mainly with the Chinese leadership, which U.S. officials portray as touchy, nationalistic and insecure as officials jockey for power and position in anticipation of the death of ailing 92-year-old paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

In private, top-level U.S. officials repeat a line one of them devised for dealing with China: "You can't look like Fred Astaire when you're dancing with an elephant." In public, Defense Secretary William J. Perry has offered a more polite version of the same line: "It takes two to tango."

"I would not claim--no one would claim--that our policy on China the last 3 1/2 years has been absolutely perfect and absolutely steady," Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, the administration's point man for Asia policy, said in an interview. "I would claim that even if it were, we'd still be having great difficulty with China.

"There are some in this country who seem to have a belief that if we have problems with China, then it's all our fault. I have dealt with the Chinese for 25 years, and this is the most difficult regime we've ever had to deal with."

In 1992, candidate Clinton expressed a more simplistic view of the world's most populous country.

In his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton seemed to equate China with Iraq. He accused the George Bush administration of coddling dictators "from Beijing to Baghdad," a phrase that failed to recognize China's vastly greater economic importance to the United States.

In January 1993, Warren Christopher, then Clinton's nominee for secretary of state, suggested to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration might try to overthrow or undermine the Chinese government.

"Our policy will be to seek to facilitate a broad, peaceful revolution in China, from communism to democracy, by encouraging the forces of economic and political liberalization in that great and highly important country," Christopher said.

No one in the administration talks that way anymore. National Security Advisor Anthony Lake said in a recent interview that the administration did not want U.S. dealings with China's leaders to become "so confrontational that in effect they cannot afford to make a compromise."

How could the administration have switched course so sharply? How could it have underestimated China's importance?

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