Agents of Influence?

Suspicion was bound to fall on the Clinton White House. First, put together the intertwined fortunes of (1) Hillary Clinton's first Rose Law Firm boss, C. Joseph Giroir Jr., (2) Arkansas megacorporations Tyson and Wal-Mart, and (3) the China ties of Clinton friends in the Indonesian Lippo conglomerate.

Then run this trio's plans headlong into the president's huge 1996 campaign funding appetite. And you create an almost inevitable fascination with what exactly all that wheeling and dealing among Arkansas travelers to Asia and the White House, and China-related visits and phone calls to the late Ron Brown's Commerce Department were all about. Just business? Or perhaps also foreign policy?

No one has yet proved that China's government was trying to buy influence over administration policy decisions. And certainly the suspicions now being aired should not be allowed to affect future American policy toward, or relations with, China. Those relations are far too important to the future of the human race to be undermined by the current political embarrassment of President Clinton or Vice President Gore.

Reasons to deal with China

If anyone has any doubt about this importance, let us just remember how much the world needs China included in deals to:

*Control the spread of major weapons (nuclear and non).

*Control atmospheric pollution. (Tote up exhaust emissions of hundreds of millions of Chinese motorcycles and small cars to be built in coming decades, not to mention smoke from coal-burning power plants.)

*Regularize world trade and tariff dealings. (Note that China's trade imbalance with the US will soon eclipse that of Japan.)

*Create mediation machinery for Asian border, sea, and commercial disputes to prevent military collisions.

The irony of the Clinton-Gore fund-raising situation is that the administration had appeared to be on the right track in dealing with Beijing. That was welcome after Mr. Clinton's earlier vacillation. But now we have to worry that Mr. Gore, who is about to visit China, might jawbone China's leaders counterproductively to prove he was not influenced by people with China connections bearing campaign gifts.

Let's try to sort out what's acceptable from what isn't in this White House imbroglio.

First, there's nothing wrong with Wal-Mart trying to sell goods in a Lippo-built mall in Indonesia or through Lippo channels elsewhere in Asia. Ditto, Tyson's desire to sell chickens to millions of chicken-eaters among Chinese and overseas Chinese. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with Arkansas banks lending to support such overseas deals, as long as they do adhere to banking laws.

Matters potentially go wrong, though, when Clinton friend and mentor Joe Giroir takes Lippo vice chairman James Riady and future campaign fund-raiser John Huang to the White House to chat privately with the president about Lippo projects. And 50 calls from Giroir to Huang when the latter held a high post at the Commerce Department add to the suspicion of policy-influencing.

No one should be shocked at the notion that friends of important foreign governments try to influence the way Washington sees, and acts in, the world. In the post-World War II period three vastly successful "lobbies" have influenced Washington.

Don't add another lobby

First, the so-called China Lobby led by Senator Knowland of California, helped tie the US firmly to the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan. For nearly a quarter century it prevented US dealings with the mainland government.

Second, the Vietnam Lobby, stoked by the Archbishop of New York and others, helped bring the US into increasing military support of the South Vietnamese government.

Third, the Israel Lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has been famously successful at influencing Congress (and presidents) to back Israel financially, militarily, and diplomatically.

No one wants to see a revived China Lobby - this time favoring the needs of the leaders in Beijing. American (and European and Asian) policy should be shaped by the urgent environment, military, and trade considerations listed earlier - not by dealmakers or overseas political leaders gaining the president's or lawmakers' ears.

Wal-Mart, Tyson, and Lippo should fend for themselves, like Boeing, MacDonald's, and the world's telecom competitors.

Messrs. Clinton and Gore must face the music created by their eagerness to sign up their world-dealing friends as campaign funders. But they should not let their lapses influence their coming steps at bargaining with China.

That process should flow hard-headedly but dispassionately from Gore's Beijing visit through the planned future dealings at the head of state level. No more distorting foreign lobbies, please.

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