Renew China's MFN Status

STATESMANSHIP, it is said, is the art of balancing conflicting claims. As he considers whether to renew China's most favored nation (MFN) trading status, President Clinton will need to pull off the diplomatic version of riding a unicycle blindfolded on a high wire stretched over Niagara Falls

The problem is simple to state: How can we most effectively promote our human rights concerns in China, while at the same time supporting our other objectives? But the answer is maddeningly difficult.

Americans care deeply about human rights in China, and we rightly wish to use whatever influence we might have in Beijing to promote a greater respect for basic individual freedoms. We remain extremely concerned about the future of the pro-democracy activists arrested at the time of the Tiananmen Square tragedy, as well as about other political prisoners. We are troubled by the use of prison labor to manufacture export goods. We abhor China's persecution of its religious minorities. We deplore Chinese ac tivities in Tibet who threaten the very existence of that nation.

But our relationship with China is multi-faceted. We also care about the economic liberalization that is changing parts of China, particularly in the south, with unprecedented speed. We also care about China playing a helpful role in Cambodia, where the murderous Khmer Rouge seems intent upon shredding the peace accord and plunging that country back into full-scale war. We care about using China's influence with North Korea to halt Pyongyang's rush to nuclear weapons. We care about Chinese missile techno logy transfers to Syria, Iran, and Pakistan. We care about China playing a constructive role in the United Nations, where Beijing can veto any action of the Security Council.

The real question is whether we should allow a policy that has laudable goals, but also an arguably better-than-even chance of backfiring, to dictate the relationship's direction. My own sense is that it would be very unwise to permit any one issue to dominate such a multi-faceted relationship.

This is not a recommendation for a business-as-usual approach. Human rights must remain central in our dialogue with the Chinese. China should release its political prisoners, open its prisons to international inspection, permit foreign observers to attend Chinese trials, end its population transfers in Tibet, and halt the jamming Voice of America and other international radio broadcasts.

But unless we maintain a dialogue with Beijing, none of these issues can even be addressed. And the surest way to shut off dialogue is to revoke MFN, or to make its renewal contingent upon the Chinese meeting conditions that are not attainable in the near term.

Relatively speaking, China has undergone a meteoric transformation in recent years. These changes have not come fast enough to satisfy us, but they have been significant all the same. It thus behooves us to support the elements in China that advocate further political and economic reform. We can best do this by cooperating with China on issues where our interests are parallel, just as we seek to entice the Chinese, through incentives, to move closer to us on those issues where our interests diverge.

In this post-cold-war era, the more intertwined the world's economies become, the more stable the world will be and the more susceptible to world opinion governments will become. Let us not confuse toughness with obtuseness. Placing unachievable conditions on the renewal of MFN for China is simply obtuse. It would be the diplomatic equivalent of shooting out the tire of one's unicycle in the middle of a high-wire act.

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