Partisan Ping-Pong may delay China deal

The freshly signed agreement between American and Chinese negotiators on China's entry into the World Trade Organization now moves on to become a political battle in the United States.

"President Clinton wants this for his presidential legacy," says Harald Malmgren, a veteran trade consultant in Washington.

Just as former President Richard Nixon has gone down in history as the president who restored US diplomatic relations with China, Mr. Clinton could claim he brought China, with its 1.2 billion people, into the world's legal trade framework.

It is an open question, though, whether a Republican-led Congress will give Clinton that achievement.

The WTO agreement itself is not subject to congressional approval. It is an executive agreement, not a treaty requiring Senate ratification.

So, assuming China reaches similar deals in the weeks ahead with the 15-nation European Union and some 28 other countries, China could be set to sign a "protocol of accession" to the 135-nation trade-regulation body.

China's 13-year quest will succeed in mid-December, after the major WTO ministerial meeting to begin in Seattle late this month, reckons Greg Mastel, an economist with the New America Foundation in Washington.

But for the US to enjoy the fruits of the WTO deal, Congress will have to repeal the Jackson-Vanick Act. Since 1974, Congress has had to vote annually on whether to grant China what the Clinton administration calls "normal trading relations," or what used to be called "most-favored-nation" status. NTR gives Chinese goods the set of tariffs given all other WTO members, rather than a much higher tariff barrier.

Critics used the annual debate to sound off on China's political repression, population-control measures, arms sales, or other complaints.

A dominant factor in the battle for repeal will be purely political.

In the Senate, some key Republicans, including majority leader Trent Lott of Missouri, dislike or distrust Clinton. They are reluctant to provide Clinton a legacy, preferring to let such an important foreign-policy achievement fall to the next president.

"They are not logical about this," says Mr. Malmgren. "Congress will sooner or later pass this measure."

Republican antipathy is one reason the Senate defeated the nuclear test-ban treaty, political observers say.

In the House, the problem is mostly on the Democratic side. Many Democratic members are reluctant to offend organized labor. In next year's election, they will be highly dependent on the AFL-CIO and its union affiliates getting out the vote with an army of political activists.

But labor is keenly opposed to the China deal. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney calls the agreement a "grave mistake."

House Republicans are likely to insist that Clinton round up a large number of Democratic representatives in support of the WTO deal before giving it an OK themselves. And many Democrats feel that after the impeachment battle, Clinton owes them one, not vice versa. "It will be difficult for Clinton," says Malmgren.

Clinton did time the agreement to suit his political purposes.

China's politburo had approved the deal brought to Washington by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji last April. It was close to the one just negotiated. Clinton's advisers were split, some thinking domestic politics, others foreign affairs.

For various reasons, the diplomatic effort failed. Then American planes accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7. All talks were off.

This had a fortuitous political advantage. It immediately put off any deal until after the AFL-CIO had endorsed Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination at its annual convention last summer.

Talks were revived when former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin visited Beijing in September. Malmgren figures Mr. Rubin had a presidential nod to tell the Chinese that a deal could be reached about the time Congress was winding up its fall session.

The scuttlebutt is that Clinton sent top economic adviser Gene Sperling with US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky for the final talks in Beijing to make sure she came back with a deal.

In public, the economic merits of the deal will now be hotly debated. Labor and the textile industry will talk of lost jobs. International businesses will trumpet new opportunities in China.

To Malmgren, the most important aspect of the deal is that it commits the world's most populous nation to the rule of international law. That will increasingly require the rule of law within China.

"That's healthy for the world," he says. "We don't want a rogue elephant out there - the last of the communist nations."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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