Delicate Work Ahead on China

Clinton must rebuild political consensus for relations, WTO entry after Taiwan threat

These are the times that try diplomats' souls. Two days after relations between the United States and China were reported as finally "on the mend" after the May bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, China issued a report Feb. 21 threatening Taiwan with military attack if it delayed reunification with the mainland. The threat came at an exceedingly bad time for the Clinton administration, which is gearing up for a coming fight on China's entry into the World Trade Organization, in which it will have to counter both union opposition and new reports of Chinese human rights violations. The administration will have to act quickly to restore political support for positive U.S.-Sino relations and to make it clear to China how much has been jeopardized.

The release of the 11,000-word report seems almost designed to upset the political applecart in the U.S.--in the many diplomatic meetings since the May bombing, some of which discussed Taiwan at length, no mention was made by Chinese officials of the shift in policy. Perhaps the U.S. should have expected some kind of "February surprise" before the Taiwanese elections; after all, the last time Taiwan had presidential elections, in 1996, China fired missiles off the Taiwan coast in a none-too-subtle warning.

Yet China's declaration that its patience could wear thin at any time raises the dangerous possibility that China has become more willing to use military force to achieve its political ends, and thereby represents a real escalation of the tensions across the Taiwan strait. Unfortunately, China's threats seem likely to spawn a vicious cycle of mistrust, making it only more likely that the Senate will vote to sell additional defense equipment to Taiwan, further angering the Chinese government.


This cycle is likely to tighten the political pincer movement in which the movement for strong U.S.-China relations has found itself. The AFL-CIO and other labor groups have been outspoken in their opposition to China's entry into the WTO, and have placed substantial pressure on presidential candidate and Vice President Al Gore '69 to change his stance. Meanwhile, the far right has focused on China's worsening human rights record; the State Department's annual human rights report used harsher terms to describe China's actions this year regarding political and religious freedoms than in any year since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Republican leadership in Congress has tried to find a balance by holding a tough line on Taiwan while advocating normal trading relations, but it is unclear whether this balance is sustainable.

All of this makes Clinton's response even more vital. With the debate on normal trading relations with China (a precursor to WTO entry) on hold due to a breakdown in talks between China and the European Union, now is the time for Clinton to make a strong case for open trade with China. China's entry into the WTO would give the world one more lever to secure economic, if not political, openness and to encourage the rising class of Chinese reformers. Clinton has made the case that economic freedom will necessarily lead to better political conditions, but has cited little in the way of results. We are encouraged, however, by the examples of China's "special economic zones," where greater economic freedom has led to a less heavy-handed political culture, which hopefully would be more reluctant to make irresponsible military threats.

Environmental and labor issues must also be addressed. Although the full details of the trade pact the U.S. made with China in November will not be released until China's negotiations with the E.U. have ended successfully, if that pact's environmental and labor protections are insufficient, bilateral agreements on these issues should be pursued along with WTO entry.

Through the WTO, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to induce China to abide by the rules of the world community in at least one arena. If China aspires to great-power status (and it does), it is better that the U.S. allow it to pursue its aspirations within the current international system than in opposition to it. The Clinton administration must overcome this ill-timed bluster with a clear statement of what the U.S. has to gain from treating China as an equal. Otherwise, the political consensus for a wise policy will disappear.

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