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President Begins China Trade Push
Tough Fight Predicted in House

By Charles Babington and Matthew Vita
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 9, 2000; Page A01

President Clinton formally called on Congress yesterday to grant permanent trading privileges to China, igniting a debate that will dominate the House for weeks and determine whether Clinton achieves the highest international priority of his final year in office.

While some analysts foresee a tough battle for the president and his allies, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) told reporters he expects the House to approve the measure by late June. He added, however, "It's going to be tough to get the votes."

Unless Congress approves the trade legislation, Clinton and others say, the United States will not share in the increased access to Chinese markets that will occur when China joins the World Trade Organization, as expected later this year. That would be a huge blunder for U.S. companies and consumers, Clinton has said repeatedly, and the snub would play into the hands of Chinese hard-liners and anti-democracy forces.

Yesterday, in a major speech in Washington, the president made his most comprehensive case yet for U.S. support of China's WTO participation. He left little doubt that he's staking part of his legacy on the debate's outcome.

A U.S. rejection of the trade measure, Clinton said, "would be a mistake of truly historic proportions." Supporting China's entry into the WTO, he said, "represents the most significant opportunity that we have had to create positive change in China since the 1970s, when President Nixon first went there, and later in the decade when President Carter normalized relations."

Opponents say the trade measure would wrongly reward a nation that oppresses its citizens, spoils its environment and threatens its neighbors. China fanned those flames last month by suggesting it might use military force if Taiwan indefinitely delays reunification talks with the mainland. Critics say Clinton's proposal would reduce U.S. influence over China by ending the tradition of annual congressional reviews of trade relations with the Asian giant, which often became forums for critiques of China's human rights record.

Some White House officials note that, despite the hot rhetoric, Congress has approved "normal trade relations" with China year after year, and they contend that's the best indicator that lawmakers will now make that status permanent. But pro-trade Democrats fear that if Congress delays action, the issue could fall victim to political pressures in an election year in which control of the House is at stake.

House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), a leading opponent, insisted yesterday that 30 Democrats who previously voted for annual renewal of trade relations with Beijing will now vote against permanent normal trade relations. "I think this is going to be an extremely close vote," Bonior said.

But Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), a leading proponent of normal trade ties with China, said: "He's speculating. There's no good vote count."

The China trade issue divides America's political and business communities along several fault lines, creating an unusual and potentially powerful coalition of opponents. It includes labor union activists, who say China abuses its workers and its environment, and conservatives who regard China as a dangerous and unpredictable communist power.

To overcome their opposition, Clinton has dug deeply into the presidency's vast resources, assigning several Cabinet secretaries and numerous aides to lobby the issue almost full time. He has created a "China Room" in the White House to coordinate the effort, and he increasingly has focused his own energies and comments on the endeavor.

"The effort being undertaken on this is as substantial as anything I've seen in seven years in the White House," said Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, the administration's national security adviser.

Clinton's success or failure will write an important chapter in his legacy. He has tried to make the Democratic Party more supportive of robust trade agreements, a tough sell to labor unions that feel the United States exports manufacturing jobs when low-wage nations such as China gain greater access to U.S. markets.

His record thus far is mixed. Clinton won a hard-fought battle for ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, but Congress rejected his later request for "fast-track approval" of proposed trade agreements. Last fall, his trip to a WTO summit meeting in Seattle became a public relations fiasco when opponents of the global trade group ran riot in the streets.

Clinton has raised the stakes on the China trade issue by making it such a big priority. If Congress rebuffs him, "it will be a big loss, and it will be very visible," said American University presidential scholar James Thurber. "I think it's going to be very difficult for him to win passage of this in Congress because it splits both parties," with many conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats working against it.

On Capitol Hill, pro-trade Republicans and Democrats were much more optimistic, despite several weeks in which treaty critics were much more forceful in trying to dominate the debate. But they warned they need a major lobbying effort by Clinton, especially in the House, where approval is much less certain than in the Senate.

"The president's role will be to frame the debate," Matsui said. He said the president's speech yesterday--delivered at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University--provided "a focus that there hasn't been before on this issue."

Officials expect the Senate Finance Committee to approve the measure and send it to the Senate floor by the end of the month. Senate passage would set the stage for a House showdown in May or June.

As a condition for WTO membership, Clinton noted in his speech, China has agreed to lower its trade tariffs on agricultural products, manufactured goods and other commodities, and it would drop its current barriers to distribution of many foreign-made goods.

"Congress will not be voting on whether China will join the WTO," the president said. "Congress can only decide whether the United States will share in the economic benefits of China joining the WTO." Congressional rejection, he said, "will cost America jobs, as our competitors in Europe, Asia and elsewhere capture Chinese markets that we otherwise would have served."

Clinton said rejection of his proposal also "would be a gift to the hard-liners in China's government, who don't want their country to be part of the world--the same people willing to settle differences with Taiwan by force . . . the same people whose first instinct, in the face of opposition, is to throw people in prison."

The administration has lined up extensive support from the U.S. business community. The Business Roundtable, a major corporate group, launched a $1.5 million television advertising campaign in 22 states this week. It's part of a planned $6 million lobbying effort by the group this year that it says will be larger than the drive to win congressional approval of NAFTA. The AFL-CIO is mounting a big campaign to deny China the permanent trade privileges.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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