White House To Try New Path With Beijing

Washington will press China on human rights, but not through its trading status

WANTED: new diplomatic tools for dealing with China. Reply care of Warren Christopher, US Department of State.''

The White House hasn't actually placed an ad to this effect in any paper's classified section. But having reluctantly accepted that threatening withdrawal of China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status is not in US interests, the Clinton administration is now attempting to build a more productive relationship with Beijing's aging leaders.

With the trade stick shelved, the United States will be forced to resort to more traditional diplomatic measures as it continues to prod China about democracy and human rights.

``We're not giving up on human rights in China by any stretch,'' said White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers on May 25. As of this writing, the White House was ready to announce its decision on China's MFN status.

US officials made it clear that Beijing's overall trade status would be renewed, perhaps with minimal sanctions, such as a ban on Chinese-made firearms and ammunition.

The move marks a shift from President Clinton's campaign rhetoric, when he criticized President Bush for ``coddling tyrants'' in Beijing. It is likely to draw fire from congressional Democrats who favor sanctions against China as a means of ending the crackdown on dissidents that has continued since the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989.

MFN renewal marks a victory for US business, which lobbied vociferously for continued normal trade relations. Trade sanctions on China would have cost US consumers millions of dollars and caused thousands of lost jobs, many US firms argued. Continued economic ties and the development of capitalism in China are the best way to promote human rights there, according to a number of analysts.

To help keep human rights on the agenda, the Clinton administration is likely to call for establishing a US-China joint commission on the subject. Such a panel would have the virtue of unhitching this touchy issue from economic relations - something US officials say they want to do. It might even be effective, one analyst says.

``If we put linkage with MFN behind us, and pursue human rights in a less confrontational way, we will find the Chinese more open to dialogue,'' says Wendell L. Willkie II, a visiting fellow studying China issues at the American Enterprise Institute.

The China question now facing the Clinton administration is: ``What next?'' For several years, US-China relations have revolved around the sun of annual MFN renewal, a contentious exercise rooted in congressional outrage at Tiananmen-era abuses.

``We should be falling back on traditional means of pressuring China to conform to international behavior,'' says Richard Fisher, a Heritage Foundation Asia expert and acting director.

In Mr. Fisher's view, that means such methods as opposing loans for China from the World Bank and other lending institutions, as necessary, to further opening of economic markets. It means increasing military-to-military ties as a means of obtaining influence to pressure China to end arms sales around the world.

Increasing the exposure of China to the outside world should be the foundation stone of a new US-Chinese relationship, according to Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey. The US should work to bring China into the world trade framework represented by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and continue to raise the cases of dissidents to the Chinese, writes Senator Bradley in an opinion article, and it should ask US firms to voluntarily subscribe to a code of principles for doing business in China. This code would include a pledge to create safe working conditions and to refrain from exporting goods made with prison labor.

Lastly, US officials should perhaps begin working to expand their knowledge about the politics of the Middle Kingdom. Beijing is beginning to lose control over much of the country's fast-growing economy, some US analysts claim, with power shifting to provincial leaders. The provinces strike their own investment deals and even foment trade wars between themselves complete with inter-provincial tariffs.

``Regional leaders may be best positioned to restrain China's use of force in territorial disputes or even to curb its arms sales policies,'' writes Gerald Segal, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.

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