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National Perspective | International Outlook

China Gives Clues on GOP Rivals

March 01, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — So, as the presidential primary season reaches its climax, where do George W. Bush and John McCain stand on foreign policy? How should voters decide between them?

If you take China as a prism through which to view the candidates, you will see remarkably few substantive differences. The choice on foreign policy boils down to important but subtle questions of style, personal abilities, organization and constituencies.

Both McCain and Bush have endorsed China's membership in the World Trade Organization and the follow-on legislation that would grant China normal trading rights (or most-favored-nation benefits) on a permanent basis in the United States.

Both of them also have come out strongly in favor of establishing a missile-defense system in Asia and of stronger American help to protect Taiwan.

Bush has called China a "strategic competitor" of the United States. McCain has branded it a "strategic rival." Not much disagreement there, either.

Let's throw aside the formal position papers. The differences between Bush and McCain emerge most clearly when you look at three broader factors: 1) the candidate and his advisors; 2) the role of big business; and 3) the power of the right wing.

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CANDIDATE AND ADVISORS. Bush has little direct personal experience in foreign policy. McCain has quite a bit.

Bush's way of counteracting this problem has been to collect a long list of experienced foreign policy advisors--most of whom, such as Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard L. Armitage and Robert Zoellick, worked for presidents Reagan or Bush.

This list is an impressive one. However, the reality is that many of these Bush foreign-policy advisors would probably go to work for any Republican president, including McCain.

In his book "The Double-Edged Sword," former Times political reporter Robert Shogan recalls how, during the 1968 presidential campaign, Nelson A. Rockefeller's foreign policy advisor, Henry A. Kissinger, often spoke with quiet contempt of Rockefeller's Republican rival, Richard Nixon.

"When I asked him if Nixon could bring the country together, Kissinger snorted, 'If he did, it would be the first positive thing he has ever done,' " writes Shogan.

The rest is history: After the election, Kissinger signed on with the Nixon administration.

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BIG BUSINESS. McCain, of course, has made campaign-finance reform a central theme in his campaign, and he has broadened his pitch to include attacks on special interests. Bush, who collected an unprecedented $67 million in contributions last year, did not come out for changes in the financing rules until two weeks ago, and then in a weaker way.

It's possible to envision ways in which these differences could affect foreign policy.

Would Bush, feeling in the business community's debt for its strong financial support, tend to give priority to American corporate interests in China at the expense of other interests such as Taiwan, the trade imbalance, human rights and democracy? Would McCain be less business-oriented?

There are no definitive answers to these questions. One can also draw up contrary scenarios: If McCain put all his energies as president into campaign-finance legislation, maybe he'd have to appease the business community by making concessions to it in other areas, such as foreign policy.

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THE RIGHT WING. On China, Bush has emerged as the preferred candidate of the right wing--that is, those within the Republican Party who propelled the series of congressional investigations into China's role in the 1996 campaign, its smuggling of U.S. technology and its espionage against the United States.

Bush's leading campaign advisors include prominent defense hawks such as former Pentagon aide Richard Perle. And the right-wing China hands mistrust McCain--who, many complain, has regularly listed Kissinger as one of those he turns to for advice on foreign policy.

Such judgments seem puzzling. After all, among the senior Bush advisors is Brent Scowcroft, who worked alongside Kissinger in forging the secretive 1970s relationship with China. And McCain's advisors include a few prominent conservatives, such as former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.

Still, the fact remains: Those most determinedly opposed to China's Communist government are an element of Bush's constituency, in a way that they are not for McCain.

At the moment, foreign policy in general and China in particular are not high-profile issues.

The Democrats aren't arguing about China now, either. Both Vice President Al Gore and Bill Bradley support China's entry into the WTO; both have avoided committing themselves to a missile-defense system in Asia.

The general election could be more contentious. Both Bush and McCain are now positioned to attack the Democrats this fall on issues such as Taiwan and missile defenses, claiming that the Republicans will provide stronger support for U.S. allies in Asia.

China may have faded from presidential politics for the moment, but the disappearance is only temporary.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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