SINO-AMERICAN relations are at a dramatic crossroads. President Clinton must soon decide whether China has fulfilled conditions, set forth in an executive order issued last spring, warranting renewal of most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status. Foremost among these is a requirement of ``overall significant progress'' on human rights. By all accounts, such progress will be difficult to justify while Beijing detains leading dissidents.
The debate is increasingly polarized. Apostles of Realpolitik and the business community deride the promotion of human rights in China as misplaced American idealism. On the other side, human rights advocates would risk a deep freeze in a trade relationship that provides important benefits to both American consumers and the average Chinese citizen.
In my view, neither is right. After five years of contentious debate about MFN renewal, it is time to reassess the linkage of human rights and trade benefits. This policy, urged primarily by congressional Democrats, has succeeded in keeping the international spotlight on China's repressive police state. But it is misguided to believe that MFN can catalyze fundamental change in Chinese government policies.
It is well understood in both Washington and Beijing that our domestic economic interests and our interest in economic liberalization in China make it paramount that MFN be retained. Knowing this, Beijing has achieved an adept diplomatic balancing act, making a few token gestures to the West, while maintaining tight control over political and civil rights.
To end this diplomatic standoff, we need a new approach that advances our human rights goals as well as another primary foreign policy objective: stopping proliferation of dangerous technologies.
First, we should expand the soon-to-be-created Radio Free Asia to promote democracy and human rights. The Clinton administration supports the concept - based on the proven model of Radio Free Europe - but has failed to provide adequate resources, budgeting just $10 million for fiscal 1995. The United States government currently spends over $20 million annually to broadcast to Cuba, a nation of just 11 million people. Surely we can provide at least twice that amount to broadcast to the 1.2 billion people in China -
one-fifth of humanity.
Second, we should tie MFN renewal to one discrete issue: China's behavior on arms sales. Since the late 1980s, China has sold dangerous missile and nuclear weapons technology to nations like Pakistan, Syria, and Iran - all the while giving hollow pledges that the practice will cease.
China's irresponsible weapons sales pose a dangerous threat to stability in the Middle East and South Asia, where radicalized regimes are engaged in an ever-spiraling arms race. We should present Beijing with a stark choice: millions from the arms bazaar, or billions from the American commercial market. This approach provides concrete criteria - norms embodied in international arms control regimes to which Beijing is committed - against which to measure China's performance. And we know from intelligence that Chinese officials will take such a linkage seriously.
Geopolitical ``realists'' should see the wisdom of this proposal. Focusing MFN renewal on one issue avoids the ``everything but the kitchen sink'' approach that Congress has taken in loading every bilateral issue into the MFN basket. A multitude of conditions can be as futile as demanding nothing. China correctly perceives a mixed message. Moreover, Beijing's proliferation practices directly threaten US national interests in preventing a conflagration in unstable regions where the combatants employ weapons of mass destruction.
This strategy implies no reduction in our concern for human rights. Radio Free Asia, concentrating on local news and events, can inform the Chinese people about the repressive policies of the gerontocracy in Beijing, as well as democratic developments elsewhere in the region. The new radio service can thus catalyze political pluralism in China, much as Western investment speeds economic reform. The power of such radio broadcasting is undisputed: Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, among others, have eloquently testified to the role of Radio Free Europe in spurring their democratic movements during the Soviet era.
Avoiding a diplomatic train wreck - and putting US-China ties back on a stable track - is in the mutual interest of both nations. Democracy and human rights are built on ideas, which we should promote - and broadcast. Rogue behavior on arms can be deterred, or punished, by our clear-cut economic leverage. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.