Cap in hand

President Clinton goes to China, a country the U.S. needs more than ever.

Published June 19, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Against the backdrop of a deepening economic crisis in Asia, and with the specter of a nuclear arms race in the region, President Clinton goes to China next week, a momentous foreign trip seriously burdened by domestic controversy over U.S. technology transfers and illegal campaign donations involving the communist giant.

White House officials say the nine-day visit, the first by a U.S. president since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, underscores the Clinton administration's determination to stay engaged with the world's most populous nation. Despite what these officials acknowledge as "serious and significant differences" with Beijing over issues ranging from human rights to copyrights, Clinton and his advisors believe it is more important than ever that the U.S.-Sino relationship be nurtured.

All eyes will be on the official welcoming ceremony next Thursday in Tiananmen Square, where Chinese soldiers butchered hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators and seared the issue of human and political rights in China into the American consciousness. Human rights advocates and Clinton critics -- Republicans and Democrats -- expect him to address what happened there nine years ago this month -- even if it means offending his Chinese hosts.

National Security Advisor Samuel Berger says Clinton will raise the human rights issue, although he won't say if that will happen during the Tiananmen ceremony. Berger was also careful to mention that China's human rights record had improved somewhat, noting that the administration's continuing engagement with China had helped bring about the release of dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan earlier this year.

Peter Rodman, a National Security Council member during the Reagan administration, says Clinton's decision to be welcomed in Tiananmen Square, with all of its negative symbolism for Americans, only confirms how inept the administration is when it comes to handling foreign policy. "They're tone-deaf," says Rodman, now a foreign policy analyst at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The summit, which was arranged months ago, also comes at an awkward moment for Clinton -- just as Republicans in Congress are investigating his administration's missile technology transfers to China and the impact of the transfers on U.S. national security. Congress also is probing the possibility that those transfers were influenced by illegal Chinese contributions to Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign -- a charge the administration vehemently denies. Some critics argue the issue was so serious that Clinton should have canceled the summit altogether.

White House officials scorned the suggestion, particularly in light of the strategic and economic developments that have rocked the region recently.

Earlier this month, India and Pakistan detonated nuclear test devices, plunging the volatile Asian subcontinent into a potential nuclear arms race. As justification for its tests, India singled out China, accusing it of helping rival Pakistan develop its own nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles to deliver them. China denies it played any role in helping Pakistan develop its nuclear and missile capabilities.

National Security Advisor Berger says Clinton will use the summit to press Chinese President Jiang Zemin on nuclear nonproliferation and missile control issues -- not only with regard to Pakistan but also Iran. China reportedly is still discussing the sale of missile test equipment to Teheran, an act that would violate pledges the Chinese leader made to Clinton during his visit to Washington last fall. While noting improvements in China's behavior, Berger says Clinton will "seek further steps by the Chinese to bring itself wholly in line with international [arms technology transfer] regimes."

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More immediately important is what the U.S. and China can or should do about Asia's worsening economic crisis, which has now embroiled the giant economy of Japan. Earlier this week, China demonstrated its clout by warning that unless action was taken to support the falling Japanese yen -- sending Wall Street into a tailspin -- Beijing would devalue its own currency, the yuan, to keep its exports competitive with those of Japan.

According to U.S. Treasury sources, it was China's warnings, which prompted fears of more economic turmoil in Asia, that convinced Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to spend some $2 billion to bolster the falling yen, reversing his earlier policy of nonintervention.
Clinton is expected to ask the Chinese to refrain from further threats of devaluation at least until after Japan's July 12 elections, after which U.S. officials hope the Japanese government will take strong measures to resolve the country's massive banking crisis.

Knowing that it needs China as a bulwark against further economic turmoil in Asia, the Clinton administration will argue forcefully
for another annual extension of China's Most Favored Nation trade status. While Clinton already has granted China MFN status, it must pass Congress, where the issue is particularly contentious this year because of the controversies over the administration's transfer of missile technology and allegations of Chinese interference in U.S. elections.

"It's a very sensitive time," Susan Esserman, an official with the U.S. Trade Representative's Office told a congressional hearing Wednesday. "Revoking MFN would worsen the Asian financial crisis," she said, warning that such a move would add 44 percent to the price of Chinese imports for U.S. consumers. Stanley Roth, the undersecretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the same hearing that failure to approve MFN will "affect our relations with China across the board ... eliminating the prospects for future progress."

That argument resonates with Republicans whose business constituency
is becoming increasingly reliant on China trade. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Tex., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, compared any revocation of China's trade status to "pouring gasoline on a four-alarm fire." Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., agrees with the administration about China's role as an economic stabilizer. China trade is increasingly crucial to her Seattle-area district, and her defense of administration policy reflects the evolving political dynamic of the China question.

But the GOP is hardly united on the issue. Opponents such as Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., insist China's MFN status be revoked, charging it "has led directly to the bankruptcy of our proliferation policies." And while Solomon's remarks echo those Republicans who have been hammering the administration for compromising national security and violating campaign finance laws, opposition to renewing China's MFN status is by no means a partisan affair. Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., whose Northern California district has a large number of Chinese-Americans, says bluntly: "The Chinese government is barbaric. They have no desire or intention to change. They release a few dissidents and put 10 more in jail. They laugh at us and mock us ... They want us to buy their cheap sneakers and T-shirts."

There are signs that critics of Clinton's China policies are having an impact. On Thursday, administration officials confirmed a New York Times report that the White House was "rethinking" a $750 million sale of communications satellites to China. Clinton approved the sale -- one of the biggest deals yet between the U.S. and China -- in 1996, but Pentagon and State Department officials are now questioning it because of the satellites' possible military application.

Such "rethinking," on top of human rights and weapons proliferation concerns, could bring a distinct chill to Clinton's summit with Chinese leaders. And that may be the price he will have to pay for his commerce-driven approach to U.S.-China relations.

"Every leader has to reexamine certain policies," says Benjamin Schwartz, professor emeritus of Chinese government and history at Harvard University. "The fact is there has been too much of an emphasis on economic relations with China. Clinton has made a cult of business interests, and it has led to an emphasis on trade over everything else in our relationship. There are other considerations that have to be taken into account."

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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