Trip to China Offers Clinton Challenges

How should one judge the trip to China that President Clinton is embarking on today? What are the standards by which to decide whether his eight days in the Middle Kingdom are a success?

There probably will be few concrete agreements between the two nations. A national security council aide, Sandra Kristoff, has been in Beijing in recent days, negotiating what the summit will produce. But in the end, the tangible results likely will be meager.

Is it worth a presidential trip--and the time and cost of sending hundreds of American officials to China--to announce, say, the opening of a Drug Enforcement Administration office in Beijing? Certainly not. Yet over the next week, the White House spin-meisters are likely to be making extravagant claims for such minor breakthroughs.

Such deals really aren't the point of the Clinton visit. We don't remember the decades of summit meetings between the United States and the Soviet Union for the agreements that were reached (at least not until Mikhail S. Gorbachev became the Soviet leader).

What matters about the coming summit will be the intangibles: how Clinton handles the much broader questions concerning America's ties to China, China's political system and China's role in Asia.

Here are the two overriding issues by which to judge Clinton's visit:

1) Tiananmen Square

Will Clinton clearly denounce China's bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 and call for what the Chinese term a "reversal of verdict" about what happened?

Over the last few weeks, the Clinton administration has put itself through contortions to justify the president's participation in state arrival ceremonies there.

At one point, White House officials even volunteered that the ceremonies would not really be at Tiananmen Square, but outside the eastern front of the Great Hall of the People. Nice try. All the Americans who have either visited or lived in Beijing know there's no difference.

Tiananmen Square is not some false, media-contrived issue. American revulsion over the massacre is the reason no U.S. president has visited China for the last nine years. And the desire to overcome that stigma is the reason Chinese officials have wanted Clinton's trip so badly.

Getting the president to China, and to the ceremonies, was a huge victory for Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The question now is what Clinton says and does about Tiananmen Square.

He likely will offer at least some words in support of freedom and democracy. But what will he say? Will he explicitly condemn what China did in 1989? Will he come up with anything as memorable as, say, Ronald Reagan's words: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall"?

The Communist Party leadership headed by Jiang still claims that the regime was justified in using force to suppress the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

"I think he [Clinton] should specifically call on the Chinese to reverse the verdict on Tiananmen Square," says Winston Lord, who served as assistant secretary of State for East Asia during Clinton's first term. "He can find the language to do it. And it's something that's eventually going to happen, anyway."

If Clinton denounces the Tiananmen repression, in public and to Chinese audiences, then the ceremonies in the square won't seem so much like a legitimization of the regime.

If, on the other hand, the president offers only vague words about the differences in values between America and China, then the Tiananmen arrival ceremony will turn out to be the most memorable moment of the trip.

2) U.S. Policy in Asia

Will Clinton make it sound as though the United States puts greater importance on its ties with China than with any other country in the region?

Earlier this month, the Times of India urged that India should "alert Asia and the rest of the world to the danger posed by the Sino-U.S. alliance." Such perceptions sound odd inside this country, where America's ties to China seem far too touchy and too unsettled to be characterized as even a tacit "alliance."

Yet overseas, Clinton's developing ties to Beijing have raised fears that America and China may team up to settle the future of Asia. The president's trip to China will be watched closely, not just in India but in Japan, which is America's principal ally in the region.

In a thoughtful critique of Clinton's Asia policy, University of Pennsylvania professor Arthur Waldron writes that Clinton's "Sinocentric approach" can't work.

"Even if it shared Washington's agenda, which it does not, the Beijing government would be too weak to carry out most of it," Waldron argued in the Weekly Standard magazine. "By tilting to China, the Clinton approach . . . is steadily corroding the very alliances on which our security rests."

With every word he utters in China, the president will be playing to the reactions of Americans back home. Clinton also has a tendency to try to please those to whom he is speaking. And over the coming week, those listeners will be Chinese.

If Clinton can keep in mind the reactions of other audiences in Tokyo, New Delhi and elsewhere in Asia, his visit may turn out to be a success. But if he makes it sound as though America's policy toward Asia starts and ends in Beijing, his trip will over the long run be judged a failure.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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