President Clinton is sharpening his campaign to permanently normalize trade relations with China - an effort that, if successful, could alter the global economy and be the crowning achievement in the president's foreign-policy legacy.
A proposed trade accord with China has been the source of wide contention in the past months, touching on topics of human rights, national security, and even the future leadership of Congress.
It has drawn in nearly every power player in Washington, from union leaders to farmers' advocates to Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee for president.
"This is the biggest lobbying issue of the decade," says Holly Bailey of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying efforts in the nation's capital.
If approved, the measure would end Congress's annual review of China's trade status - with its perennial spotlighting of human-rights concerns.
It would also pave the way for Beijing to join the World Trade Organization. To do so would open the world's most-populous market, which the Clinton administration says would boost the world economy. In a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here March 8, President Clinton is expected to argue that a new trade relationship with China will have far-reaching benefits, both for the booming US economy and for the stability of Asia.
The president could put forth legislation within days that would pave the way for China to join the WTO, administration officials say.
In a break from normal procedures, the bill is likely to be introduced first in the Senate, where it has greater support. Then, the real battle will be fought in the House of Representatives. Administration officials say they want to get a measure passed as soon as possible - before support drops any more than it already has.
The issue of trading with the Chinese has taken on added symbolic weight because of China's crackdowns on human rights - against the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, for example - and its threats to take military action against Taiwan.
Last month, Chinese officials released a policy document - or "white paper" - warning Taiwanese leaders that they would take military action if Taiwan did not move forward in talks to reunify with the mainland.
Taiwan and China have been separate since the Communists came to power in 1949 and the Nationalist Party moved across the straits. The US is a de facto ally of Taiwan and sells it defensive military equipment - although Washington officially recognizes one China.
Some opponents of normalized trade with China see Beijing as a potential military rival on the level of the former Soviet Union, and say the US should not be doing business there. Furthermore, they argue that the US should do more to protect Taiwan in the case of a Chinese attack.
For example, Taiwan has asked the US if it can buy military equipment to build a missile-defense system, including navy destroyers with a system to shoot down missiles. US officials have yet to give a final answer.
The House has passed the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would increase military sales, but it is doubtful that the measure will pass the Senate.
Pentagon officials and some analysts here downplay China's military strength, however, and say that the best way to enhance regional security is to engage the world's most-populous country and hope for gradual reform.
"China is not a military threat at the moment - to the US, [the US's] allies or Taiwan," says David Shambaugh, a foreign-affairs expert at George Washington University in Washington.
The battle in Congress over a China trade bill is likely to be intense. Many potential swing votes remain undecided, and some have speculated that miscalculation by either party could result in the gain or loss of a House majority in fall elections.
One setback for supporters of the measure has been a mixed message from Mr. Gore, who, although he supports China's entry into the WTO, has said that as president he would seek labor and environmental provisions in future trade negotiations with Beijing. Analysts say that hesitation, plus heavy lobbying pressure from unions, makes it easier for House Democrats not to support the president.
Labor unions oppose bringing China into the WTO because they say it would take jobs from American workers, push up trade deficits, and weaken worker rights around the world.
"Once [the Chinese are] in, they will have veto power over any policy the WTO might adopt," says David Abernathy, a labor-union consultant in Washington.
Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican who is trying to push the measure in the House, acknowledges that the final tally will be close, but says some votes are turning in favor of the bill. He cites Rep. Greg Ganske (R) of Iowa, who recently changed his mind and lent support to a China-trade measure. "An overriding number of Republicans are supportive," Mr. Dreier says.
Passage of a bill to permanently normalize relations with China is especially important to Clinton as his term winds down and he becomes more aware of his legacy, analysts say.
In terms of foreign policy, he has seen three possible accomplishments slip away: peace agreements in Northern Ireland and the Mideast, and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear arms.
But, unlike the case with the CTBT, in which some accused the president of not lobbying enough, Clinton has put maximum emphasis on getting China into the WTO.
"Most of the Cabinet members are working on it," says Morrie Goodman, public affairs director for the Commerce Department, which has taken the lead. "As you can imagine, it's a very, very important issue for the president."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society