US-China Repairs

One of the world's key bilateral relationships - China and the United States - is in the shop for an overhaul. The mechanics are President Clinton and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.

Premier Zhu's US visit is the occasion to apply the tools of statecraft to a wide range of issues at the heart of this relationship. Among them is trade. China's desire for membership in the World Trade Organization is a major reason the Zhu trip went forward, despite Beijing's sharp objections to NATO actions in Yugoslavia.

China wants to join the WTO club, and most of those with an interest in freer trade - including politically potent US corporations - want it to join. China would then have to meet international standards for economic openness and transparency, and be obligated to maintain them.

The problem has been getting China to lower existing trade barriers to the point where current WTO members - notably the US - would OK entrance. That point is near.

But trade is only one part of the US-China diplomatic mechanism. Other components include: human rights, charges that China has snatched US nuclear secrets, and foreign policy collisions.

Human rights concerns must be kept clearly in view. They have as much to do with China's full membership in the wider community of nations as trade liberalization. They should not, however, be made an excuse for disengaging with China.

The nuclear secrets issue is wearing on trust, particularly among US lawmakers already cool toward Beijing. The basic need, however, is for Washington to do a better job of safeguarding its secrets.

Foreign policy tensions cause the loudest clatter. China decries NATO intervention in Kosovo. But what really concerns it is its own desire to dampen dissent in places like Tibet, and to reclaim sovereignty over the "lost province" of Taiwan. The US must state unequivocally its concern over human rights abuses in Tibet, and its firm opposition to military threats against democratic Taiwan, despite the "one China" policy.

On the positive side, China can be a crucial partner is solving tough problems like North Korea's missile and nuclear threat.

The Sino-American relationship will need regular maintenance. But it must be kept running.

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