American trade sanctions are currently aimed at China, but the target is actually bigger, even, than that biggest of nations.
At stake is pirated "intellectual property" - copyrighted or patented creations ranging from entertainment videos to business software to pharmaceuticals. This issue has been high on the US trade agenda since the early 1980s, when Washington recognized that such property is at the core of US and European competitiveness.
By spotlighting China's transgressions, Washington hopes to force Beijing to curb its pirates and drive home to the rest of the world American determination in this matter. For China is far from alone when it comes to blinking at copyrights.
China was given priority this year by the US Trade Representative as a violator of intellectual property rights. But an expanded watch list includes India, Japan, Argentina, and the European Union, among others. The fact is, plunderers of new products - whether hit movies or popular drugs - spontaneously pop up in all parts of the world with a modicum of technological know-how and a feel for the market.
Without question, the task of reining in the pirates is monumental. And just how far the US is willing to push this issue, and risk souring economic relations with China, rests on more than calculations of fair trade and just profits. Politics enters in too, with President Clinton aware that the soft-on-China charge he leveled at George Bush four years ago could boomerang this year.
Politics aside, the US is right to take a firm position on intellectual- property rights. As the information-driven economy goes global, all nations, including China, have a long-term stake in bringing some order to this arena.