Who's losing China?

Foreign policy has so far played little part in the presidential race, but that may change. Of all the unstable situations simmering on the horizon - Russia and Chechnya, Serbs and Albanians, Arabs and Israelis - the issue most likely to roil the political waters is the mounting tension over China and Taiwan.

So far, the four principal candidates have gotten away with statements limited to supporting trade with China with various qualifications. Gov. George W. Bush wants to "strengthen our alliances in the Far East" and call China a "competitor," not a partner. Sen. John McCain wants strict enforcement of trade rules. Vice President Al Gore, who has to walk a line between administration support and labor opposition to expanded trade with China, puts his emphasis on not saying in advance what would embroil the United States militarily in the Taiwan dispute. Former Sen. Bill Bradley is more forthright about telling Taiwan we will not support any move for independence.

But developments are making it harder to fudge on China policy. An ominous new phase may have opened on Feb. 21 when the Beijing government, shortly after a high-level American delegation had left, issued an 11,000-word blast with its most explicit threat yet to use force if Taiwan did not soon start talks on reunification.

President Clinton has said, "You have to see it in the context of electoral politics playing out in Taiwan and not necessarily assume some destructive action will follow." The president's reference is to the Taiwan presidential election on March 18. Mr. Clinton is clearly concerned about the impact of China's increasingly bellicose rhetoric on the chances for passage of US legislation normalizing trade relations with China, expected to come up for a vote in June.

The president used the presence of the nation's governors in Washington this week to appeal to them to lobby with their congressional delegations for passage of the bill.

Aside from the shaky status of the trade agreement in Congress, there are three military developments that Beijing has branded as hostile acts. One is the bill passed by the House to enhance Taiwan's security. The second is the plan being considered by the Pentagon to sell Taiwan $4 billion Arleigh-Burke class destroyers with advanced Aegis air-defense radars. The third is the talk in Congress of including Taiwan, as well as Japan, in a theater missile-defense system.

Admiral Dennis Blair, commander of US forces in the Pacific, has been in Beijing trying to resume the cooperative military-to-military relationship that former Defense Secretary William Perry promoted five years ago. But the atmosphere now is much different.

There is every possibility the dispute over Taiwan will become intertwined with the struggle over trade. It's not likely, in this election season, that the China issue can be kept confined to the halls of Congress. There may well be a political argument, not about who lost China, but who is losing China.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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