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The "yellow peril" has suddenly risen above the horizon again, just as the "evil empire" sinks to its grave.

The great debate in Washington these days is about China and its power of malevolence in the world - only this time the Republican president wants to make nicey-nicey with it while staunch liberal Democrats want to banish it into the outer darkness.China has been singled out because it abuses its citizens' human rights and because it exports arms, including missiles and technology that might be used to make atomic weapons. President Bush wants to allow China to retain its present access to American markets but proposes strict limits on high-tech exports to China. Many members of Congress, led by Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell, want to shut it out of American markets altogether.

A highly moral debate. But just ask yourself: What is so exceptional about China? Until last August, Iraq enjoyed most favored nation status, allowing it to sell goods to the United States with low tariffs.

China is not exceptionally evil. Indeed, there are plenty of countries in the world that have more detestable regimes (witness the overthrow of one of them in Ethiopia), and plenty of others whose foreign policy is far more dangerous.

There's no doubt that China plays a destabilizing role by selling missiles to Syria and Pakistan and a nuclear reactor to Algeria. However, there is less, much less, to this than meets the eye. It has to be asked where these three countries get the money to pay for these weapons: They are all basket cases, and the way to control Syria, which has lost its Soviet sponsor, is to cut it off from foreign aid.

The real issue, and the one that Congress is going to debate in the next three months, is whether the United States should trade with a country that sent the tanks into Tiananmen Square to suppress a democratic demonstration.

Bush says yes, and advances a coherent case. He says that the real question is which policy would have the best chance of forcing democratic change, trade or sanctions.

If the United States closes its doors to China, it will hurt the Chinese economy but will not destroy it. It will also please sections of American industry and labor unions, which resent cheap Chinese imports, and will please South Korea, Taiwan and other countries in East Asia, because they want the market, too.

So does Bush or Mitchell have the better in the debate? Bush's most telling point is that for 20 years after the Chinese revolution in 1949 the United States led the boycott against it - and those were the darkest days in China's modern history.

It is also ironic to hear the senior active member of the Democratic Party now advocating policies once fervently upheld by those rabid Republicans, while the country's top Republican, like Richard Nixon before him, wants to stay on the best of terms with the men who sent in the tanks.

Perhaps the course of wisdom would be for both sides to climb down from their high horses and admit that the United States cannot dictate to the world, certainly not to a country as big as China, and concentrate instead on something the United States can really influence - like the arms trade in the Middle East.