Neither Ignore Nor Isolate : Is Clinton’s China policy about to take shape?

Five years after the government of China turned its guns and tanks on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tian An Men Square, that nation faces an uncertain future as its communist leaders maneuver behind the scenes to succeed the ailing Deng Xiaoping, 90. The transition that his inevitable passing will bring about requires a review of Washington’s policy toward Beijing.

Times staff writer Jim Mann reported that the Clinton Administration is thinking about lifting most of the remaining sanctions imposed against China after the Tian An Men massacre, although just three months ago the President said he was extending them.

Until now, the Administration has been torn between anguish over China’s grim human rights policies and the dire need to improve trade relations. The confusion culminated in the embarrassingly hostile reception that Secretary of State Warren Christopher received in Beijing last spring. Now Clinton is moving toward restoring the U.S. relationship with Beijing. However, the Administration must be careful in doing so to not inadvertently validate China’s hard-liners.

THE MANEUVERING: No one can forget the Chinese government’s harsh treatment of dissidents and its other human rights failures, but, as a major succession looms in Beijing, it is more important than ever for the United States to engage the emerging players. China obviously is too big a nation to ignore or to attempt to isolate.


Clinton renewed most-favored-nation trading status for China last May. At the time U.S. officials said he was trying to decouple trade and human rights, which had been souring relations between the two countries.

As a follow-up to that controversial decision, Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown is leading a White House-sponsored delegation of American business leaders currently visiting Beijing.

Brown could have a key role in the Administration’s policy changes. The commerce secretary is hoping the United States will open the way for a “new commercial relationship” with Beijing. Among other steps, the Administration is considering lifting the prohibitions on U.S. trade assistance to China and on the Overseas Private Investment Corp. program, which provides insurance and financing for American companies. These possible changes are of mainly symbolic value to Beijing, but some reciprocal move would certainly be in order and should be part of improving U.S-China relations.

THE MARKET: Although China is an important market for the United States, care must be taken not to simplify U.S.-China relations into a mere commercial connection. Rapid change has engulfed China in the five years since Tian An Men, and it is likely to continue and even accelerate dramatically.


To date Beijing has been far more astute than Washington at handling the problems that have arisen in U.S.-China relations as a result of all that change. The United States requires a consistent, broad-based and sophisticated China policy to prepare now for the coming change of leadership in Beijing.