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Clinton Plans to Send a Top Aide to Beijing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton is preparing to send White House National Security Advisor Anthony Lake to Beijing within the next few weeks in what would be the highest-ranking administration visit to China in nearly two years, The Times has learned.

Lake’s trip is aimed at trying to ease growing friction between the United States and China.

In addition, some Republicans believe that the Clinton administration is trying to ensure that there is no more trouble with Beijing during this campaign year, while holding out the prospect of a post-election trip to China by the president or Vice President Al Gore.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher made one star-crossed visit to Beijing in March 1994, during which the Chinese leadership rounded up dissidents and icily rebuffed all discussion of human rights. Defense Secretary William J. Perry traveled to China in the fall of that year.

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Since then, no top-level U.S. official has gone to China, though there have been several meetings between officials of the two countries in other locations. Critics of the administration have been complaining with increasing frequency that one reason relations between Washington and Beijing are so rocky is that they are usually conducted at relatively low levels.

An administration official insisted Friday night that Lake’s trip is “not firmed up yet. . . . We’re still working things out with the Chinese.”

But this U.S. official confirmed that “we are discussing a trip by Tony to China in the relatively near term.” He said the purpose would be to talk with China about the “big-picture issues” facing Washington and Beijing.

Other sources said Lake’s trip will come soon, perhaps in about two weeks, and that he will be accompanied by Sandra Kristof, director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council. An administration official said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Kristof accompanied Lake to China.

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The administration is wrestling with a series of disputes with China. On Friday, Clinton formally sent to Capitol Hill his already-announced decision to extend China’s most-favored-nation trading benefits.

Washington and Beijing are now said to be quietly drawing closer to a settlement of the ongoing dispute over China’s piracy of intellectual property. And last month, the administration announced that it would not impose sanctions on China for its sale to Pakistan of ring magnets that can be used in a nuclear weapons program.

Administration officials “want China to think about an improving relationship, so that there will be no flaps,” former U.S. Ambassador to China James R. Lilley said Friday night. Lilley was a Republican appointee and longtime aide to former President Bush.

Lilley said that the message the administration is sending China is: “If you give us a placid five months, this is what’s coming . . . maybe a Gore visit after the election, a visit by [Chinese President] Jiang Zemin to the United States with a full 21-gun salute, all things to China’s benefit.”

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Lilley added: “At the same time, I think the Clinton people are saying to China, ‘You have to give us something too.’ ”

In the past, the leadership in Beijing has tried to calculate how American presidential elections can work to its advantage and which of the two major-party candidates might be better for China.

These efforts to play American politics reached a peak during the 1988 campaign, when China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, publicly endorsed Bush for president.

Taiwan makes similar efforts, most notably when it succeeded during the 1992 campaign in persuading Bush to clear the way for an unprecedented sale of F-16 warplanes to Taiwan.

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There have been some signs this year that Chinese officials would prefer to have Clinton win a second term, rather than face a new Republican administration under Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. One reason is Chinese anxieties about growing support for Taiwan among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Another reason is that Chinese officials believe that it is always better to deal with “the devil you know” than with a newcomer--and because they believe that it takes at least two or three years for a new president to become accustomed to dealing with China and to recognize its weight in Asia.

Both Clinton and former President Reagan eased their policies toward Beijing after coming to the White House. Indeed, relations between the United States and China were at their peak during Reagan’s second term.

Despite its recent flirtation with the Clinton administration, China has welcomed several top-level Republicans to Beijing in recent months, including Bush. And Lilley said Friday night that the Chinese leadership seems to be taking care to maintain ties with both the Clinton and Dole camps.

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In a speech in New York City last month, Christopher proposed that the United States and China begin to upgrade the level of contact with one another by having regular, Cabinet-level meetings in Washington and Beijing.


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