U.S. links trade with reform in China
By Philippe Debeusscher
WASHINGTON (AFP): U.S. President Bill Clinton is backing that normalized Sino-U.S. trade ties will speed reforms in the world's most populous nation and bolster east Asian stability threatened by growing tension between Beijing and Taipei.
The president has made congressional approval of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China -- up for a vote this week in a bitterly divided House of Representatives -- the top legislative priority of his last year in office.
Many backers of PNTR stress it is crucial if the United States is to benefit from a landmark bilateral trade pact signed last November as well as from China's eventual accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which sets global commercial rules.
"It's clearly in our economic interests," agrees Clinton, who has had his hands full with wooing House members from his own Democratic party, most of whom are expected to oppose PNTR in a vote set for Wednesday.
"But even more important, it is a national security issue for stability in Asia, peace in the Taiwan Straits, possible cooperation with China to advance freedom and human rights within the country and to retard the proliferation of dangerous weapons technology beyond it," he says.
PNTR foes say the annual review process it would replace gives Washington leverage over China on issues like labor and human rights, the environment, and proliferation, while the accord will cost hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs.
"We waive all rights to inject human rights and labor rights in the WTO if this agreement is signed," Richard Trumka, a top official of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor organization, told CBS television Sunday.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright disagreed, telling the network: "We don't disagree that their human rights record is not good ... I think this will help the human rights agenda," by infusing China with U.S. goods and information.
PNTR backers say the accord will boost entrepreneurship outside government control while increasing Chinese access to information not vetted by officials in Beijing, encouraging democratic forces at the expense of Communist Party control.
"If this vote goes down, then the hardliners in China will be the happiest," she said.
"I think it's the most important national security vote Congress will take this year because it will give us the chance to really change our relationship with China," Albright added.
Clinton's policy of engaging China has suffered repeated setbacks amid stern criticism in the U.S. Congress.
Signs of a thaw in relations after Chinese President Jiang Zemin's late 1997 visit to the United States, and Clinton's 1998 trip to China vanished after a series of incidents cast a chill on bilateral ties.
Beijing's early 1999 crackdown on dissidents and pro-democracy forces, charges China stole U.S. nuclear secrets, and increased tensions between Taipei and Beijing fanned the flames of discontent among U.S. lawmakers
Faced with that hostile environment, Clinton last year pushed off completion of the historic trade accord giving U.S. businesses sweeping access to the Chinese market from early in the year to November.
That in turn irritated Beijing, which suspended all talks with Washington after NATO planes mistakenly bombed its embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo campaign.
Some analysts place the blame for Sino-U.S. tensions on Clinton's shoulders.
The president "never decided how much of a priority to make China, going there only once, six years into his presidency," Richard Haas, director of foreign policy studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.
"Nor did he decide which issues mattered most to him -- wandering among human rights, trade, Taiwan and Korea -- or how to blend carrots and sticks in its attempts at engagement," he wrote.