SINCE the founding of the Republic - with rare exceptions -
American presidents have put foreign trade above other strategic
interests. Now China is putting that historic truism to one of its
Over the past two years China has sold nuclear technology to
Pakistan, sent missiles to Iran, pirated US intellectual property,
ignored demands to improve its human-rights record, and threatened
Taiwan, one of the United States's most important trading partners.
But Mr. Clinton has hesitated to respond with punitive
sanctions. China represents one of the world's most promising
markets. US companies have pumped more than $20 billion into the
country since 1990, building factories and offices. Given the link
between markets abroad and jobs at home, some analysts say,
restraint may be the only real option the president has.
"American economic and diplomatic interests have usually gone
hand-in-hand," says University of Connecticut diplomatic historian
But Clinton is feeling pressure. China's most-favored-nation
trade status is up for renewal in June, and administration
officials will face stiff opposition from Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of
North Carolina and other members of Congress upset over China's
One possible solution for the Clinton administration: targeted
sanctions against particular Chinese companies, such as the firm
suspected of aiding Pakistan's nuclear program. "Renewal of
mostfavored-nation trade status does not mean you are not going to
take strong and aggressive action in a particular area," Commerce
Secretary Ron Brown said recently.
In recent decades, economic as well as strategic considerations
prompted the US to keep trade lines open to dictators from the
Philippines to the Dominican Republic. Criticism of political
corruption in Mexico, to choose another example, has been muted
because of its evolving economic partnership with the US.
In China, where rapid economic growth and a huge middle-class
market have drawn hundreds of billions in foreign investment, the
risks of punishing Beijing for human-rights violations and illegal
arms sales are inordinately high.
Number of US jobs tied to China
US trade with China supports more than 200,000 American jobs
plus additional employment in US ports, retail establishments, and
consumer goods companies, according to the Business Coalition for
US-China Trade, an association lobbying to keep Congress from
revoking China's most-favored-nation trade status.
In a rare recent exception to the rule that business
considerations take precedence in foreign policy-making, Congress
and the administration agreed to tighten sanctions on Cuba over the
objections of US businesses. They complain that the US policy of
isolating Cuba has kept them out of an opening multimillion-dollar
market that companies from other nations are now cashing in on.
The difference has been the Cuban-American lobby, whose
political clout has served to offset the influence of the US
"Where you find this kind of domestic political power, it can
force a break in the cooperation between the government and the
business community," notes Cornell University diplomatic historian
Walter LaFeber. …