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A Looking-Glass Policy on China

May 10, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — Since 1993, the Clinton administration's intellectual arguments on behalf of its China policies have shifted many times.

When President Clinton granted an unprecedented visa to Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui in 1995, for example, he justified his decision by saying Lee had a constitutional right to travel here. After Lee's visit provoked Chinese outrage, there were no similar trips, and Clinton's dubious legal claim was quietly dropped.

Last week, the administration did it again.

Pushing to line up enough votes in Congress to win approval of permanent trade relations with China, Clinton and National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger set forth two broad propositions that extend well beyond trade.

Both men maintained in separate speeches that the China trade vote is vital for national security. Berger took it a step further; he argued that approval of permanent normal trade relations with China will help the cause of reforming China.

"By strengthening the reformers instead of the hard-liners in China, we have a chance to encourage the best possible outcome: a China with a leadership that finds strength in partnership with its people and the world," Berger declared in a speech at Columbia University.

These justifications are worth examining. In fact, in other contexts, the Clinton White House has made the opposite arguments. Let's look.

Trade and National Security: Over the past eight years, as Congress has held yearly votes on whether to renew China's trade benefits, lawmakers have sometimes complained about China's missile sales in the Middle East and its conduct toward Taiwan.

The administration had a handy reply: Let's not mix up trade with national security, officials often argued. Trade is trade, and we should keep it separate from other issues.

That seemed like a plausible argument at the time. But now, worried that it might not win this month's vote with economic arguments, the administration has done a 180-degree turn and connected trade to national security.

Helping Reformers: Berger's notion that the United States should come to the aid of China's reformers sounds like a good idea. But it, too, represents something of a turnabout.

In past years, when American human rights groups suggested that the U.S. government should aid Chinese dissidents, American officials warned that this country should not become too involved in China's internal power struggles.

Moreover--so the warning went--any Chinese whom America openly embraced could be branded inside China as a tool of the United States.

Now, Berger is openly siding with economic reformers within the Chinese leadership, like Premier Zhu Rongji. He seems to be gambling that Zhu will be helped, not undercut, by America's endorsement.

There are other risks too. Many scholars believe the administration's policy toward Russia went awry when the Clinton White House got too swept up with the idea of helping reformers in Moscow.

"What they [the administration] did was to pick a few people [in Russia] and pronounce them reformers and then justify sticking with them all the way, on the basis that this was helping reform," says Michael Mandelbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations.

There is an argument for having the U.S. spur economic reform inside China.

It goes like this: China's membership in the World Trade Organization will require it to close down state enterprises. And that in turn will weaken the Communist Party because the state sector is the biggest political constituency supporting the party.

"WTO entry will destroy the basis for authoritarianism in China," asserts Pei Minxin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The state-owned sector cannot survive in a competitive environment. That will destroy the political base of the Communist Party . . . not in five years but in 20 years."

This argument assumes that the Chinese regime will comply with the WTO's rules; that it will not find a way to keep its state enterprises running; and that the Communist Party will lose control without state enterprises.

The administration seems to have adopted some of this thinking. Berger has argued China's WTO membership will shrink the state sector and "take the command and control out of communism."

Still, it's doubtful the White House is actually committing itself to the overthrow of Chinese communism. There are other motivations at work behind the drive for the China legislation.

"There are 1.2 billion people over there, and increasingly, more and more of them will be able to buy what Americans sell," Clinton said last week in a speech to the Independent Insurance Agents of America. "And as people sell more over there, they'll have more to buy insurance with."

That presidential quip provided a better glimpse of what is driving the movement for permanent trade relations with China than all the talk about security or helping reformers. It's about America's still-unfulfilled dream of capturing a huge China market.


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



Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford join President Clinton to back normal trade relations with Beijing. A36

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