President Clinton today will ask Congress to renew normal trade relations with China, an issue complicated by allegations of Chinese espionage in U.S. nuclear labs and by NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last month.
Administration officials expect the Republican-led Congress to grant the annual extension of trade privileges, once known as "most favored nation" status but now called "normal trade relations." This year, however, they are bracing for more criticism, especially from lawmakers angry over reports that China has been stealing nuclear weapons technology from U.S. labs for years.
The administration's request does not directly involve the larger, more controversial question of whether China should be admitted to the World Trade Organization. WTO membership would require China to make numerous concessions and reforms in its economy and its trade practices. In exchange, China would receive greater international prestige and assurances of permanent "normal trade" status.
Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji had hoped to secure a WTO agreement with Clinton when he visited Washington in April and was angered when negotiations fell short. Relations between the two nations grew even worse when NATO bombs struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7, killing three Chinese journalists.
Chinese officials allowed demonstrators in Beijing to pelt the U.S. Embassy with rocks, which triggered denunciations in Congress. Relations chilled further when a detailed congressional report accused the Chinese of nuclear spying, which the Chinese deny.
On top of all that, this month marks the 10th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, which has become a symbol of China's poor record on human rights and openness.
These events have all but killed the Clinton administration's earlier hopes of presenting Congress this summer with an all-or-nothing vote on WTO membership for China. That strategy would have dispensed with the annual vote on renewing normal trade relations, which Congress has always granted.
China's harshest congressional critics must decide whether to make a serious bid to end that nation's normal trade status. Such a vote would deal a devastating blow to China's struggling economy, and it would harm many U.S. companies that import and export goods with China.
White House spokesman David Leavy said of the president's request: "We're prepared to mount a vigorous effort to make clear that this is in the national interest. And we believe there is bipartisan support in engaging China without illusions."
Another official said: "There's a view within the administration that it is not likely that we can wrap things up with China in time to have a single vote" before Congress recesses in August. That could make WTO membership for China more difficult, the official said, because the issue will become entangled in the 2000 presidential elections and in Congress's heavy fall calendar.
Last year, the House voted 264 to 166 against blocking renewal of normal trade relations with China. The Senate did not bother to take up the matter because rejection of the trade status requires the support of both houses.
Despite the recent problems in Sino-U.S. relations, Clinton appears determined eventually to bring China into the WTO, said a Washington resident who participated in a closed session on political issues Sunday with the president, his wife and many others at the Clintons' Florida vacation site.
Staff writer Paul Blustein contributed to this report.