Clinton's Evolving China Policy

Article excerpt

When Air Force One touches down in the historic Chinese city of Xian on Thursday, it will culminate not just an 18-hour flight and months of careful summit preparation, but an extraordinary six-year policy journey for the American president.

As a candidate in 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas chastised President Bush and promised "an America that will never coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing."

As president, Mr. Clinton abruptly changed course.

China, he and his advisers now argue until they are hoarse, should be, if not coddled, at least embraced. That, they say, is the best hope for easing the pains of the communist dictatorship's adolescence as a 21st century global power.

Mr. Clinton's nine-day, five-city journey through China embodies his philosophy of engagement. It will be the first by a U.S. president since the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Soviet Union's demise ate away at the pillars of domestic support for close Sino-U.S. ties.

From a lunch with young business entrepreneurs in Shanghai to comments on China's tainted environment amidst the splendors of the Guilin Peaks, Mr. Clinton will preach the virtues of cooperation.

Underpinning Mr. Clinton's China policy is his belief, and that of National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, that China is so large and populous, its economy growing and changing so quickly and its sick environment so threatening to the planet, that it can impinge on virtually every U.S. foreign policy objective of the next generation.

Two recent events - the Asian financial crisis and nuclear tests in South Asia - have only hardened that view.

"The direction China takes over the next 10 years or 20 years will fundamentally and profoundly affect our interests, our children's future, stability in Asia, peace in the world," Mr. Berger said last week.

Mr. Clinton came to office with a different argument: that pressure should be exerted to force China to change its human rights policies. He linked Beijing's behavior toward its 1.2 billion people with the annual renewal of its most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status, which last year allowed $62 billion in Chinese imports into the United States with low tariffs.

But that changed. "The economic side of the administration chickened out," says a China expert with firsthand knowledge of the policy evolution.

As the White House struggled to maintain a united front and pressure the Chinese to take human rights steps that would justify renewal of MFN and satisfy the Congress, then controlled by Democrats, officials in the Commerce and Treasury departments began to worry the administration might actually end up denying China MFN status, the expert says.

China, sensing the division, ceased cooperation. And after little more then a year in office, Mr. Clinton abandoned his approach and severed the connection between MFN and human rights.

SON OF BUSH?

Soon, he found himself in Mr. Bush's old shoes, defending a policy short on sticks and long on carrots.

Now, those critics charge, the president has abandoned any means of pressure on Beijing's leadership at all - becoming, in effect, more Bush than Mr. Bush.

"It's almost like he doesn't know how to calibrate it," says Robert Zoellick, a top Treasury and State department official under Mr. Bush. "Now, it's almost like anything goes."

"It's like carrots and sticks gone amok, says one Hill aide who follows the issue closely. "I don't see a single stick."

Many critics say they, too, favor engagement with China. But, they argue, the Clinton policy has failed to lower Chinese market barriers, to stop Beijing's continued detention and mistreatment of dissidents or secure its compliance with previous agreements to curb weapons transfers to unstable regions.

To an extraordinary degree, critics on the left and right are joined in the belief that the president's policy switch was driven by dollars - the lure of huge markets for American products, that would help secure U. …