President Clinton yesterday announced that he will renew China's favored trading status with the United States in a prelude to a summer congressional debate that the White House expects will be less about trade and more about Republican charges that U.S. China policy has been weak and vacillating.
Clinton's announcement of the one-year renewal of most-favored-nation trading status for China came in a speech before the private Pacific Basin Economic Council. Clinton, as he has in prior years and as President George Bush did during his term, said that revoking the privileged trade status would drive the two nations into isolation from one another, further eroding any hope for progress on human rights, trade and weapons proliferation issues.
The renewal of trade privileges, Clinton said, "is not a referendum on all China's policies. It is a vote for America's interests."
Revoking China's trade privileges "would drive us back into a period of mutual isolation and recrimination that would harm America's interests, not advance them," the president said.
Clinton's announcement will be followed by a formal June 3 letter to Congress notifying lawmakers of his intention. Congress then has 60 days to stop the renewal. Both houses must vote to overturn the president, and Clinton can veto those disapprovals, requiring opponents to produce two-thirds votes in both houses to stop the action.
Because of the legislative hurdles, no president has lost an MFN fight over China, even after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre that resulted in strong U.S. sentiment against China.
White House press secretary Michael McCurry said yesterday that the effort to extend MFN "is going to be a tough fight." Republicans are already citing China as a Clinton foreign policy failure because of the lack of significant progress on a key issues like trade and human rights. But White House officials said yesterday they were confident that Clinton would win the MFN vote, if not the broader debate over his performance.
Clinton has the support of Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who last week said trade benefits should be extended but sharply criticized what he called vacillation and weak leadership by Clinton on overall China policy. That, Dole said, makes MFN a tough sale in Congress and the country.
The MFN renewal announcement comes a week after the White House threatened China with massive trade sanctions -- $3 billion in punitive tariffs on clothing and consumer electronic goods -- for failing to halt piracy of U.S. computer programs, movies and music.
China responded with a threat of its own sanctions, opening the possibility of a trade war to compound the already strained bilateral relationship already.
But the administration has also taken other steps to ease strains. Earlier this month, for example, Clinton declined to impose sanctions it could have imposed on China because of its sale of nuclear technology to Pakistan.
The White House says it is pursuing a "balanced approach" of carrots and sticks aimed at coaxing progress on the key issues. But Clinton critics call his approach appeasement that is schizophrenic, not balanced.
Kevin Kearns, chairman of an anti-MFN coalition of conservatives said yesterday that by threatening sanctions on one hand and extending trade privileges on the other, Clinton is following "a schizophrenic policy which invites the rest of the world to take advantage of the United States."
Patrick J. Buchanan, the Republican presidential candidate, called the MFN extension "an act of economic, moral and military appeasement." He said that, for the GOP, "this will be a defining moment: Do we stand with Bill Clinton, or do we stand by the values that made us a congressional majority? Do we love trade more than we loathe tyranny?"
In making his case yesterday, Clinton said revoking MFN would lessen U.S. contact with China and that isolation would make progress on any front more difficult. "Rather than strengthening China's respect for human rights, it would lessen our contact with the Chinese people," he said. "Rather than limiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction, it would limit the prospect for future cooperation in this area."
"Rather than bringing stability to the region, it would increase instability," Clinton said. "Rather than bolstering our economic interests, it would cede one of the fastest growing markets to our competitors." CAPTION: President Clinton announces the extension for one year of most favored nation status for China at a meeting of the Pacific Basin Economic Council at Constitution Hall. The announcement will be followed by a formal June 3 letter to Congress notifying lawmakers of his intention.