US Brinkmanship Over MFN Won't Bring Progress to China

WASHINGTON annually plays a high-stakes game of brinkmanship with Beijing over renewal of ``most favored nation'' - that is, normal - trade relations. This year our commercial, diplomatic, and national-security stakes in a productive relationship with China are reaching new highs. Instead of annual MFN duels, I propose a workable alternative that enables Washington to engage China more constructively on the issues that divide us.

Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush renewed regular MFN trade status with China as a matter of course until 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square uprising. Thereafter, China's MFN status was extended, but not without Mr. Bush wrangling for months with a Congress anxious to accrue short-term political benefits to MFN foes.

The situation changed when the Democrat-led Congress was joined by a new Democratic president. Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign took a hard line against the Bush MFN policy. But, once in office, President Clinton applied finesse and extended MFN in 1993. The tough decisions were avoided until 1994.

This year the Clinton administration has given widely mixed signals. The Departments of Commerce and Treasury express interest in expanding the United States trade relationship with China, while the State Department, egged on by congressional MFN foes, sternly warns Beijing to improve its human rights record, or else. Winston Lord, the Undersecretary of State for East Asian Affairs, recently announced finding ``significant improvement'' in Chinese human rights.

China's MFN status must be renewed by June 3, and the stakes in the outcome of this MFN duel are far higher than in the past. The latest focus has been on Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who was rebuffed in Beijing because of a failed, confused White House policy that would link Chinese human rights with commerce for the purpose of political expediency. Beijing may reason that, particularly in an election year, a Democratic Congress and president will not cut off MFN and jeopardize the jobs of thousands of Americans, which depend on exports to China.

Meanwhile, a crisis over North Korea's possession of nuclear materials and perhaps weapons magnifies China's influence. Beijing is the only window Washington or anyone else has into the insular Pyongyang regime.

The US must ask whether this MFN brinkmanship has actually improved human rights in China. We do not build freedom in China by constantly beating Beijing with the diplomatic MFN stick. Should the US cut off MFN, those hurt will be the Chinese citizens who for the first time are experiencing economic freedom.

Evidence of such freedom is unmistakable: A year ago January, I viewed a privately-run Shenzhen industrial complex that just five years ago was a rice field. There I used a cellular phone to call a town meeting in Marshalltown, Iowa, where my farm constituents were discussing new export opportunities. And while the Communist Chinese government mandates that the Chinese watch only the government channel, the people favor BBC, CNN, and the Hong Kong stations. My source for this information was a Southern China government official.

The most freedom-inducing action Washington can take in China is not to threaten Beijing but to accelerate the development of commercial enterprise in China's cities and hinterlands. We can do this by extending MFN and placing our human rights concerns in another, more appropriate venue. Other nations make their point with Chinese human rights without resorting to political brinkmanship. For example, Australia annually sends a high-level delegation to China to review Beijing's human rights progress.

I have introduced legislation authorizing Clinton to establish a US-China Bilateral Human Rights Commission. Commissioners would include government officials with experience in human rights, jurists, religious leaders, and business leaders. Using the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a guide, the bilateral commission could monitor human rights in both countries, using offices in both countries manned by permanent staff.

This would not solve the issues separating the US from China. But America's relationship with China has grown too valuable - diplomatically, economically, and militarily - for us to risk it each year over a high-profile, politically charged MFN battle.

The effort to engage China maintains Americans' concern with Chinese human rights and extends our increasingly productive commerce with one of the world's fastest-growing markets. By treating trade appropriately, and Chinese human rights in an equally appropriate though separate manner, Congress and the administration can turn back from dangerous brinkmanship with Beijing and toward the future.

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