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GOP Tiptoes Around Contradictions In Blasting Clinton's Actions On China

By Carroll J. Doherty, CQ Staff Writer

With their harsh attacks on President Clinton's China policy, Republicans believe they have finally found a way to pierce the president's seemingly impenetrable political armor. But for an object lesson in the difficulties and dangers inherent in such a strategy, the Republicans need look no further than Bill Clinton.

As a presidential candidate in 1992, Clinton famously railed against President George Bush for "coddling tyrants" in China and conducting "business as usual with those who murdered freedom at Tiananmen Square."

But in politics, what goes around often comes around. Six years later, Clinton is under fire and facing multiple investigations by congressional Republicans for allegedly turning a blind eye to transfers of sensitive missile technology to Beijing. In part, Clinton's troubles stem from following the same sort of pro-business China policy for which he blasted Bush.

And in a twist of the rhetorical knife, Republicans have begun referring to the president's trip to China later this month as the "Tiananmen Square summit." It was the Chinese government's massacre of pro-democracy dissidents in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 that prompted candidate Clinton's condemnation of Bush in 1992.

Led by GOP critics, the House voted 305-116 on June 4 to approve a non-binding resolution (HCONRES285) that urges the president not to attend a welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square when he goes to China later this month. (Vote 202, p. 1562)

"We need to put pressure on communist China," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. "Are we supposed to turn our head and look the other way just for the almighty dollar?"

But Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said the largely symbolic resolution was a "superficial way to deal with a complex issue," and that it would do little to protect human rights in China.

When Clinton arrives in China on June 25, he will be at pains to demonstrate to American audiences that he is challenging China's leadership, while sending the message to China that he wants to maintain amicable relations. Even before the House vote, the administration was showing sensitivity to the questions of whether Clinton would meet Chinese leaders at Tiananmen Square. Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry noted that the meetings will be held at the Great Hall of the People, which is on the edge of the square and not technically in it.

GOP Vulnerabilities

But while Republicans have clearly put the administration and Democrats on the defensive over China, GOP leaders have their own vulnerabilities. For one thing, they are struggling to prevent the controversy over high-tech exports from triggering a wholesale reexamination of the longstanding U.S. policy of engagement with Beijing -- a policy with which they generally agree.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who has led the charge in the technology imbroglio, is supporting the linchpin of the administration's China policy -- renewal of Beijing's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status, which ensures Chinese goods non-discriminatory tariffs. As expected, Clinton renewed China's MFN status June 3. Congress now has 90 days to vote to disapprove the renewal.

The apparent contradiction in Gingrich's stance has not been lost on conservative critics of Beijing. "After all this, he endorses the centerpiece of the Clinton China policy," said Robert Kagan, a former Reagan administration official and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

At the same time, Republicans are also taking a risk in what looks like a promising investigation of the relationship between Democratic campaign contributions and the administration's approval of technology transfers to China. Previous campaign finance probes saw the GOP promise blockbuster revelations but fall short.

Four Senate committees and a House select committee will examine whether Clinton jeopardized national security by granting a waiver to Loral Space and Communications Ltd. to launch a commercial satellite on a Chinese rocket. Loral's chairman, Bernard Schwartz, was the largest individual contributor to Democrats during the last election cycle.

But the panels could have a tough time finding evidence to back up the charges being made by some GOP lawmakers. "Something terrible has happened," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., referring to the administration's satellite waivers. "And every man, woman and child may well have been jeopardized."

The Senate's investigation got off to a bumpy start June 4, as CIA Director George J. Tenet initially declined to share information related to the satellite controversy with the Intelligence Committee. Tenet reportedly refused to provide the information because it would jeopardize the Justice Department's ongoing probe of Loral.

The department, which has been investigating whether Loral illegally provided sensitive technology to China, later relented and agreed to the release of most of the disputed documents. But senators were taken aback by Tenet's refusal, and the incident might foreshadow future battles between the administration and Congress over the disclosure of key information.

Threat or Opportunity?

At the heart of all these issues are fundamental questions that have divided lawmakers ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Can the United States maintain normal relations with the world's most populous nation? Or is China a retrograde communist dictatorship that represents an inevitable threat to U.S. interests?

There is ample evidence to support both points of view. Since 1989, China has engaged in a series of provocative actions that would seem to justify a more confrontational policy by the United States -- including shipping nuclear bomb components to Pakistan in 1996 and threatening Taiwan the same year. All the while, thousands of political prisoners have languished in China's gulag.

But even China's harshest critics do not seem to want a return to the Cold War, when the United States and China were avowed enemies. With bilateral commerce booming -- China was the United States' fourth-largest trading partner in 1997 -- U.S. companies have worked furiously to ensure that does not happen.

Meanwhile, Americans seem conflicted in their views of China. There is still lingering suspicion of an old enemy. Kagan observed that the allegations over Chinese rockets caused such a stir simply because they involved China, which still aims missiles at the United States. "Would this have been as big a deal if it was Israel or Italy? I think not," he said.

"Basically, the center of gravity among the public tends to be that China is not a friend and not an enemy," said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

On the big question -- is China a threat or an opportunity? -- Americans are almost evenly divided. In a poll conducted last fall by the Gallup Organization, 43 percent said China was a threat, while 45 percent felt it presented an opportunity.

The Wings Weigh In

Those who are most skeptical of the policy of engagement with China tend to come from the wings of both parties. In recent years, the effort to strip China of its MFN status has forged unusual alliances, joining liberals such as California Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi with conservatives such as Arkansas Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson.

Because the wings in each party have a disproportionate impact on the presidential nominating process, it is no surprise that China is getting a significant amount of attention from prospective presidential candidates.

Last year, for the first time, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., broke with Clinton in opposing the extension of MFN for China. When Clinton announced he was again seeking an MFN renewal this year, Gephardt fired off a stern rebuke of administration policy. "America must stand for more than money," he said.

Last year, House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, also voted for the first time against renewing China's trade status. And in a recent speech, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr. excoriated the administration's China policy.

"While commerce takes precedence over national security for this administration when it comes to China, the money that really talks is that which buys policy decisions," Forbes said in an address to the William J. Casey Institute of the Center for Security Policy.

But whenever possible, most politicians would prefer to have it both ways on China, registering concern over various Chinese policies while firmly embracing a productive, non-adversarial relationship.

Clinton performed his own 180-degree turn on the issue in 1994, when he effectively abandoned the idea that human rights should be linked to trade and instead endorsed the Bush administration policy he had hammered as a candidate two years earlier.

For his part, Gingrich has emphasized his outrage over the technology transfers and his objections to the president's trip, while downplaying his support for MFN. The Speaker signed a letter to Clinton urging that MFN be kept separate from the other China-related controversies.

Normally, Republicans would be scrambling to land a place in the president's delegation. But after the technology transfer controversy broke, interest dried up. "We have no takers," said Christina Martin, the Speaker's press secretary.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has taken a more cautious approach than Gingrich in criticizing the administration's China policy. He has vowed that the four Senate committees investigating U.S.-China policy would conduct vigorous, but nonpartisan, inquiries.

"This is a very serious matter that has affected my opinion of China," he told reporters June 2.

Still, while Lott has announced he is reconsidering his previous support for MFN, he said that the scandal should not prompt a full-scale reappraisal of the policy of engagement. "I wouldn't go that far," he said.

And Lott appeared skeptical of a House-backed proposal to prohibit the export of U.S. satellites to China, which passed overwhelmingly as an amendment to the fiscal 1999 defense authorization bill (HR3616). (CQ Weekly, p. 1402)

"We would not like to have a whole raft of amendments [to the bill]," he said. "We'll see what's most effective."

As in the House, interest among Senate Republicans in traveling to China with Clinton has waned considerably. But Democrats apparently had no qualms about joining the president's entourage. Aides to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said several Democrats had expressed interest in accompanying the president.

Referendum on Relations

As in recent years, the MFN debate will serve as something of a referendum on Sino-American relations. The House is expected to take up the issue after the July 4 congressional recess.

While the scandal over export technology transfers has alarmed business lobbyists -- who annually enshrine MFN renewal as one of their top legislative priorities -- no one seriously expects Congress to revoke MFN this year. Congress has never successfully moved to end China's special trade status since it began voting on the issue in 1980. It came close in 1992, however: Under fire from candidate Clinton and the Democratic Congress in 1992, Bush twice had to veto MFN disapproval measures, and only the Senate upheld his vetoes.

What is likely to be most significant about this year's battle is the prominent role taken by social conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council in opposing MFN. The Council's president, Gary L. Bauer, is a potential candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.

A spinoff of that group, called American Renewal Inc., has been running national television and newspaper advertisements that serve as a vivid reminder of the 1989 massacre. While showing the famous image of a lone protester standing up to a Chinese tank, Bauer urges Clinton: "Mr. President, don't go to Tiananmen Square."

With business groups pulling out all the stops to retain MFN, the debate promises to increase tensions between social and economic conservatives in the GOP. Those two factions have recently sparred over legislation to crack down on religious persecution abroad (HR2431) and proposals to eliminate the so-called marriage tax penalty.

"This is the last thing we need," said Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, an unabashed free-trader who said he has no objections to the president visiting China. "We're playing a very dangerous game here, isolating ourselves."

But Hutchinson, a leading social conservative, said the controversy over high-tech exports has given his side new ammunition. "I think that multinational corporations have too much influence in the China debate," he said. "There has been an unholy alliance between big business, the Clinton administration and certain Republicans who have adopted the trade-at-any-price approach."

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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