Clinton Handicaps Himself on Dealing With China

The emerging power of China will be President Clinton's toughest foreign policy problem during his second presidential term.

The administration confronts this problem with a number of handicaps.

First is the imbroglio over Chinese involvement in Mr. Clinton's presidential re-election campaign. The facts are not yet totally clear. What we do know is that during the campaign the FBI warned some White House officials and members of Congress of the danger of Chinese meddling. The public perception is that something fishy went on and the Chinese were up to their wrists - if not their armpits - in it. This is going to complicate Clinton's dealings with the Chinese. For political reasons at home, he cannot be seen to be accommodating the Chinese regime that apparently favored his reelection.

A second problem is that the foreign policy team Clinton has put together for his second term has little expertise on China. His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, is a woman of Europe with little experience in Asia. Her deputy, journalist Strobe Talbott, is an expert on Russia and would not claim similar expertise on Asia. Samuel Berger, Clinton's new national security adviser, is also without significant background involvement in China.

A third problem is the lack of clarity on China policy that has bedeviled the Clinton administration since it took office. Clinton has vacillated, zigging and zagging between toughness on China's human rights violations on the one hand, and then, on the other hand, surrender to the American business interests that want to cozy up to the Beijing regime. The American course has been erratic, and the Chinese have taken advantage of it, contemptuously dismissing Clinton's lectures and entreaties on human rights, while pursuing American investment, technology, and trade ties that suit their purpose.

The result so far is a China that is growing economically at an amazing pace but has not embraced the political freedoms that generally accompany such liberalization. Meanwhile, the Chinese are accelerating their military prowess, developing the capacity to project that power in Asia, and arming such dubious allies as Iran. This, coupled with their economic development, could make them the dominant power in Asia and, with the decline of Russia, America's principal adversary in the arena of global rivalry.

To all this, the American policy response seems to be "engagement," a vague commitment to maintaining a dialogue, with visits to Beijing by Vice President Al Gore, and ultimately meetings between President Clinton and Deng Xiaoping's chosen successor, Jiang Zemin. Dialogue is good, indeed essential. China is important and will become more so. But the dialogue needs to be underpinned on the American side by a clearer definition of what the US wants from China, and a more sophisticated diplomatic game plan for achieving it.

US -China relations will not, of course, be determined by the Americans alone.

On the Chinese side there is uncertainty and nervousness about the stability of their own power structure. Mr. Jiang has been establishing his authority during Deng's last years. But he has rivals and critics who do not wish him well and may yet bring him down. The consequence of this is erratic behavior on the Chinese side, as Jiang seeks to maintain China's improving living standards while appeasing conservatives who fear that political reform may follow.

All the while, there looms in the background the might of the Chinese military, ambitiously developing and honing modern weaponry, and selling some of it to countries like Iran to the chagrin of US generals charged with containing Iran.

GIVEN the political uncertainty in Beijing, and the willingness of the Chinese military to project its newfound military strength, there is potential for miscalculation on a dramatic scale.

Hong Kong is an early possibility. On July 1, British colonial rule ends and Hong Kong comes under Beijing's rule. In the past, China has promised rather gentle rule but, as the time for handover grows shorter, the Chinese have become more pugnacious and less reassuring about preserving Hong Kong's freedoms.

Hong Kong is important, but in a way is just a warm-up for the way Beijing may conduct itself toward Taiwan, which it seeks ultimately to reintegrate into China.

Chinese missteps in such sensitive areas could bring an uneven US-China relationship quickly to the crisis point.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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