Push Begins for Free China Trade ; Clinton Seeks to Normalize Relations, Ending Congress's Annual Reviews

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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. …