Why is President Clinton visiting China now? The answer is a blend of diplomacy, horse-trading over human rights and the administration's desire to improve U.S.-China ties.
Clinton's nine-day visit is a follow-up to his summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Washington in October. Two years ago, administration officials had agreed that Jiang would go to Washington and that Clinton would visit China in his second White House term.
U.S. officials had envisioned that Clinton would travel to China at the end of 1998. But early this year, after a flurry of negotiations with Chinese officials, the White House moved up the president's trip to June.
"We moved the trip up at the recommendation of Ambassador [James R.] Sasser," the U.S. envoy to China, Clinton explained in an interview last week. "The national security team looked at it and said they thought he was right, because there's so much going on in Asia, and because President Jiang had a good, constructive trip [to Washington]. And we wanted to try to build on our relationship with China."
In March, administration officials worked out a detailed package with the Chinese: Clinton agreed to go to China in June--rather than at year's end--and the United States dropped its support for a United Nations resolution condemning China's human rights record.
China, in turn, agreed to sign a U.N. covenant guaranteeing civil and political rights. And Beijing signaled its willingness to release Wang Dan, the imprisoned student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement, into exile in the United States. Wang was duly freed April 19.
Another reason Clinton came here now was that Jiang and his aides asked Clinton to make a special trip to China, one in which he would visit no other Asian country. Such a trip would serve the purpose of underscoring China's importance to the United States.
The president is obliged to cross the Pacific virtually every November for an annual summit of Asian leaders. This year's session is planned for Malaysia. Thus, if Clinton were to visit China then, he would have had to do so only before or after stopping in other Asian locations.
The White House has denied domestic speculation that Clinton scheduled his China trip in June to divert attention away from Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit. That case had been scheduled to go to trial in May but has since been dismissed.
"That [case] was not a factor in my decision to recommend to the president that he move up the trip [to China]," National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said last week. "I'm not aware of any other factors. But I can't prove a negative."