The Sanctions Minuet

AS trade wars go, the intellectual-property dispute between the United States and China looks more like a minuet than a brawl.

China, to no one's great surprise, missed the Feb. 4 deadline to avoid punitive tariffs of 100 percent being slapped onto $1 billion worth of export goods to the US. The tariffs were applied gently, so to speak, apparently calibrated so as to do no great harm to either side. In addition, the Clinton administration announced Monday that it would expand subsidized wheat sales to Beijing, in an effort to keep Europeans from a bigger share of the market.

But the punitive tariffs were applied, because China failed, in the US view, to take adequate action against pirating of American software, musical recordings, and films, some of it by factories owned by the army, in violation of China's own copyright laws.

It was also no great surprise that only two days after the sanctions were ordered, and well before they are actually to take effect (Feb. 26), the Chinese invited their American interlocutors back to Beijing for more talks.

In one sense, this is the kind of problem with a trading partner that the US should be glad to have. The financial crisis in Mexico has cast a shadow over the economic aspirations of ``emerging markets'' around the globe. The problem in China, on the other hand, is one of the economic success of a developing country.

It's also noteworthy that the problem can be framed in terms of China's failure to enforce its own copyright laws; just a few years ago there would have been no laws to enforce.

Moreover, copyright enforcement is acquiring a constituency within China. Its software producers, novelists, and other intellectual laborers are beginning to insist that they, too, are worthy of their hire. Too much should not be made of this, but it is a sign of nascent respect and desire for the rule of law in China, critical to modernization - and not yet achieved.

The down side in the current dispute is that it's not clear that Beijing is in control of all of China; with the best will in the world, the central government's ability to bring pirates to heel may be less than adequate. And the question of a possible successor to Deng Xiaoping remains.

But it won't be surprising if an approach of steady-as-she-goes yields a result both sides can be happy with.

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