WASHINGTON — After a difficult start, the Clinton administration has cobbled together an approach to relations with China that may rank as one of its most notable foreign-policy achievements.
That doesn't mean there haven't been missteps on specific policies, or errors in timing. One of President Clinton's most important China initiatives, the granting of Permanent Normal Trade Relations, has yet to become law - although it's getting close. After months of delay, it's now expected to pass in tomorrow's Senate vote.
Critics on the left say the president hasn't pushed Beijing hard enough on human rights. Critics on the right claim he's ignoring a Chinese military buildup and export of missile technology around the world.
But the very variety of the complaints shows how difficult the management of US-Chinese interaction has become. History may see the administration as having kept the relationship from degenerating into hostility while making progress on difficult issues - like trade - that can "In roughly 1995, they got the balance about right," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "It has been an effective combination of engagement and deterrence."
On the "engagement" side of the ledger, administration officials have urged a more stable American attitude toward trade with China and have supported China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Beijing has sought WTO membership for more than 13 years, seeing it as equivalent to recognition of China as a full member of the world community.
On the "deterrence" side, in 1996 Clinton responded to Chinese missile tests near Taiwan by sending two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the region. According to administration officials, Clinton continues to tell China's inner circle about the need to improve its civil rights record virtually every chance he gets.
The result is a relationship which both Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin have compared to the weather - generally good, but with occasional storms. Both countries see that it is in their interest to handle the other well, said a senior administration official at a briefing after Clinton and Jiang met in New York on September 8.
Problems continue to appear. But "we've gotten to the point we can discuss those problems frankly, without the whole relationship going off a cliff," said the official. "That's been one of the real accomplishments over recent years."
It is also far from the tenor of the relationship at its beginning. In 1992 candidate Clinton ran as a critic of President Bush's policy of engagement with China, which he likened to the coddling of dictators. His administration would put human rights at the top of the US-Sino agenda, he suggested.
The first incarnation of Clinton's China policy was, indeed, more confrontational than that of his predecessor. It was capped by the decision to give Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui a visa for a high-profile visit to Cornell University - a decision that Beijing took as a poke in the eye.
But even as Clinton became a born-again budget balancer in the Oval Office, so did his administration begin to moderate its China positions. In doing so, it was falling into a long-established pattern. As Sebastian Mallaby notes in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, US policy toward China has remained basically stable since Nixon's historic visit to Beijing - with every president favoring some kind of engagement, while Congress focuses on human rights abuses and alleged espionage.
Enter PNTR, or Permanent Normal Trade Relations.
Last November, China and the US reached a historic agreement on the terms under which the US would push for Chinese World Trade Organization membership. For the US, the pact held out the promise of significantly lower tariffs on exports to China. But before those cuts take effect, Congress has to vote to end its practice of renewing China's trade status on an annual basis.
Persuading lawmakers to do just that has proven to be one of Clinton's most exasperating legislative tasks. The administration had to beat back opposition from unions and many Democratic lawmakers to win a hotly contested House vote.
And only after last week's rejection of an amendment that would have strengthened sanctions on China and any other nation deemed guilty of proliferating weapons of mass destruction does PNTR passage finally seem assured in the Senate.
America has been trading with China for centuries but "it is not until now, until this [PNTR] vote before us, that our country will have access to free and open trade with this massive country called China," said Sen. Wayne Allard (R) of Colorado during debate on the bill.
Not everyone approves of Clinton's China policies, of course. Many liberals argue that ending the annual China trade debate will deprive the US of one of the few methods of influencing Beijing that it had.
Others complain that the Clinton administration has reached this point only after years of vacillation, and without any real plan for what comes next.
But China is not Canada, or even France. It is a sensitive, truculent nation which at times combines 1950s-style repression with 1980s-style capitalist excess. In short, it is a handful - as the next president will surely discover.
"It is a difficult country to deal with," says Thomas Christensen, a political scientist and China expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society