For Clinton, a reaffirmation of economy-centric policy

This week's yes vote on China trade reinforces President Clinton's commitment to using open markets as a primary tool to forge political change overseas, and to spread American prosperity.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton's gigantic investment in winning the House vote shows how, as his administration progressed over time, more emphasis has been placed on a fundamental tenet of his presidency: "It's the economy, stupid."

That was originally a Clinton domestic priority, but it has evolved into a key theme of international policy as well. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the handling of the Mexico and Asia financial crises, and the recent Africa-trade pact all precede China as examples of Clinton's policy of economic globalization.

Together with these, the China decision "signals an important accomplishment," says Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution here. The vote, though, is more a "bookend" than it is a seminal act, he says.

In fact, the whole concept of changing China through engagement predates Clinton: Presidents Richard Nixon and George Bush both adhered to that philosophy.

As for what the vote means to Clinton's legacy, the arduous road of engagement with China makes for a difficult assessment. Beijing is notorious for erecting roadblocks in front of investors, and China's Communist regime has shown it does not intend to relinquish its grasp on power, says Winston Lord, Clinton's former assistant secretary of State, who supports China trade but warns about "exaggerating" the vote's impact.

Clinton threw his best effort into ensuring passage, but he couldn't have done it without Republican backing - just as with welfare reform, a balanced-budget agreement, and NAFTA. "The president does deserve some credit for this, but let's remember, it's the Republicans who have rescued him," says Mr. Lord.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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