Sometime soon, President Clinton will have to decide whether the Chinese record on human rights is good enough to justify continuation of most-favored-nation trade status. Whatever he decides, he is going to make many people unhappy, unnecessarily so.
It did not have to be this way. Nor would it have been without a 20-year chain of confused priorities, inappropriate attempts to use ineffective levers of power, and unintended consequences - or maybe all of the consequences weren't unintended.
In the jargon of international trade, most-favored-nation treatment is not a privilege. On the contrary, its denial is a penalty.
Now, flash back to the United States Trade Act of 1974. The main purpose of this law was to authorize the president (then Richard Nixon) to negotiate reductions in tariffs and other barriers to international trade.
A subsidiary purpose was to implement a trade agreement with the Soviet Union which, among other things, would have settled the Soviet's lend-lease debt to the US from World War II. It also would have authorized extension of most-favored-nation treatment to the Soviet Union and other communist countries.
There were multiple benefits to the US: settlement of long-standing claims, greater involvement of the Soviet Union in the Western trading system, and general promotion of the Nixon policy of dtente. All of these advantages were derailed when Congress linked most-favored-nation treatment to human rights and specifically to Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.
The Soviet reaction was to reduce Jewish emigration instead of increase it and to denounce the trade agreement as well as the lend-lease settlement. Some people think the wreck of the trade agreement was precisely the purpose of the congressional sponsors of the linkage between trade and human rights. Thus would they achieve their larger purpose of blocking dtente.
In any case, the linkage became embedded in US foreign policy. It now threatens to do to US-Chinese relations what it did to US-Soviet relations 20 years ago.
Most-favored-nation status was extended to China in 1980 with the support of Sen. Henry Jackson (D) of Washington, the cold-warrior who had been principally responsible for denying such treatment to the Soviet Union. Senator Jackson saw China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and chose to overlook Chinese restrictions on emigration, imposed in response to British complaints about masses of Chinese flooding into Hong Kong.
Now the Soviet Union is gone, and US-Chinese relations are irritated by multiple vexations besides trade and human rights. As with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, there is a body of congressional opinion that seeks to make the vexations worse as a means of avoiding anything that might make them better. This bloc in Congress has more cards to play than did its anti-Soviet forbears - not only trade and human rights, but also Tibet and Taiwan, this last a subject of exquisite Chinese sensitivity.
Congress played some of these cards in this year's foreign-affairs authorization act. For example, the president was urged not to visit China until human rights there were improved, and he was urged to appoint a special envoy to Tibet. (The Chinese government regards Tibet as part of China. That position may not ultimately prevail, but having the US send a special envoy to Tibet would be like Castro sending one to Miami.) Congress also called for Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to be invited to the US, a move sure to infuriate the mainland Chinese.
Clinton trumped all these cards when he vetoed the bill that contained them, but they can be resurrected. They may score political points in the US, but they are counterproductive as far as their professed objectives are concerned.
A country the size of the US has diverse interests that dictate diverse objectives of foreign policy. Not all of these objectives can be served to the same degree at the same time. Choices have to be made. This is the essence of foreign policy. The worst choice is to link unrelated objectives and to use one (in this case, trade) as a lever to achieve another (human rights). This tactic usually leads to the loss of both.
Congress ought to participate in making choices of this kind, but it ought to do so on the basis of more rational consideration than it has shown in cases going back more than 20 years.
It is this kind of behavior that gives Congress a bad name. That's too bad, because it detracts from congressional influence in the larger number of cases when Congress is being constructive.