China Plays its China Card: N. Korea or Human Rights?

James A. Baker III was the 61st secretary of state and the 67th Treasury secretary

Barring resolution of the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program, the Clinton Administration will have no choice but to recommend that Congress extend Most-Favored-Nation trading status to China when it expires in June.

The reason is simple: Beijing's cooperation is critical if the United States and its allies are to thwart North Korea's effort to renege on its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and circumvent the internationally recognized standards and safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. While advancing human rights in China is important to U.S. principles, preventing a nuclear North Korea is essential to our vital interests. The crisis in Korea makes the case for MFN, already strong on economic grounds, compelling.

Thanks to liberals in the U.S. Congress, the Chinese government has long been the object of "linkage" between human rights and trade. Now, because of the crisis in North Korea, China is in a position to turn the tables and practice linkage on an unwilling United States. This time the linkage will be between renewing MFN status and Chinese cooperation on North Korea.

U.S.-North Korean negotiations over the last few months may have worsened the situation. By giving the North Koreans the impression that we were prepared to accept less than full compliance with IAEA safeguards, we signaled weakness.

Now, in the face of North Korean obstructionism, the Clinton Administration is shifting gears. The United States has dispatched improved Patriot air-defense missiles to South Korea, augmented its naval forces and called for the resumption of "Team Spirit," the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise.

All these measures are overdue. The North Koreans must understand that an attack on the South will mean war with America. The Administration's recent military steps should reinforce this message. It should consider going even further by informing Pyongyang that the United States will defend South Korea from attack with whatever it takes. We should bolster deterrence by letting the North know if it tries to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" we would not rule out the use of that same U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent that prevented Stalinist aggression in Western Europe for four decades.

A more assertive U.S. military posture can help deter North Korean aggression. But it cannot reverse Pyongyang's single-minded pursuit of the nuclear option--an ambition that threatens peace on the Korean peninsula, stability in East Asia and the viability of efforts to control weapons of mass destruction. In Tehran, Tripoli and Baghdad, rogue regimes are watching to see how the West resolves its first nuclear-proliferation crisis of the post-Cold War era.

North Korea may yet open its facilities fully to inspection by the IAEA. But, given Pyongyang's renegade record, the United States should not count on it. Any strategy to curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions must now plainly include international economic sanctions.

The Administration has apparently opted for such a strategy. Its plan, presumably, is to begin modestly with simple condemnation and then build Security Council resolutions toward sanctions if, as expected, Pyongyang still balks. Whatever the Administration's U.N. game-plan, one thing is certain: China will be critical to any effort.

First, China sits on the Security Council and can veto or, by threat of veto, dilute any Security Council sanctions. Second, China has a special relationship with North Korea.

With China's economic opening to the West, its relations with North Korea may not be as important as they once were. But the Sino-North Korean relationship remains essential to Pyongyang--one of the world's most isolated regimes.

China is North Korea's largest economic partner, with total trade estimated at close to $900 million in 1993. China accounts for three-fourths of the energy and food imported by the North--commodities that keep the North's economy, already faltering, from collapsing altogether. Active Chinese participation in economic sanctions against North Korea is a sine qua non for their success.

China has no national stake in promoting a nuclear North Korea. The prospect of a new nuclear power in East Asia is alarming to Beijing--a fact that Chinese leaders revealed to me when I visited there as secretary of state in 1991. And Chinese cooperation was instrumental in U.S. efforts to compel North Korea to agree to IAEA safeguards--a step Pyongyang took in January, 1992.

Still, the Administration would be wise to avoid presuming that U.S. and Chinese views on North Korea are identical. Whatever Beijing's views on North Korea, China's leaders will seek to leverage cooperation on North Korea into U.S. concessions or quiescence on human rights. The Administration is publicly sanguine about the prospects for Chinese cooperation on North Korea. But it is hard to imagine cooperation on sanctions surviving a congressional decision to revoke China's MFN status.

The Bush Administration was never comfortable linking MFN status for China with human rights. We believed that too strict a linkage would not only undermine U.S. commercial interests in one of the world's largest and fastest growing markets but also, perversely, set back the cause of free-market reforms in China. Economic reform, we believed, would, in the long-run, lead to political liberalization, the surest way to ensure human rights for all Chinese. U.S. policy was to avoid both outright isolation and a zealous embrace of China's leadership.

That position was the object of much scorn by congressional Democrats and by a number of candidates--including Bill Clinton--during the 1992 elections.

Despite the high-decibel campaign rhetoric, the Administration has sent unclear signals since assuming office. Last summer, the Administration supported renewal of MFN status for China despite evidence of continuing human-rights abuses. Officials at Treasury and Commerce recently urged that human rights be down-played for the sake of U.S. commercial interests.

Today, the Administration faces a stark reality: Washington needs China on North Korea--and Beijing knows it. MFN renewal will almost certainly represent part of the price of securing China's help in sanctions against Pyongyang.

This is unlikely to take the form of something so crude as a formal quid pro quo. Indeed, if Chinese leaders are wise, they will offer superficial concessions--release of a dissident or two, the lifting of an odious if unimportant restriction--before Administration officials are forced to go to the Hill to face the human-rights hawks in their own party.

It will not be a pleasant experience. The Administration will find conservatives pointing out how close its China policy has come to that pursued by the Bush Administration. Liberals will likely cite the Clinton Administration's own rhetoric as evidence of hypocrisy.

But, however galling the Administration will find arguing the case of MFN renewal, it will have no choice.

The economic arguments for renewal remain powerful: thousands of U.S. jobs are at risk. There is no evidence that denying MFN will do anything but inflict immense harm to the Chinese economy and economic reformers in China and cause Beijing to dig its heels in further against democratization. And, though China's human-rights policies violate deeply-held American principles, a nuclear North Korea is an immediate threat to U.S. and Western vital interests.

Beijing's cooperation on sanctions against North Korea is a Chinese trump card--one China will almost certainly play. The Clinton Administration, facing one of those unpleasant choices between reality and rhetoric, will be forced to follow suit by renewing MFN.

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