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The Senate's Democratic leader, just back from a trip to China, proposed Sunday that the United States permanently grant China normal trade relations while continuing to emphasize the importance of human rights.

Sen. Thomas Daschle said the United States, the world's only remaining superpower, must develop a better relationship with the strongest country in Asia. That cannot be done, he said, by keeping China's trade status in uncertainty through annual reviews that use it as the standard for dealing on all other issues."We've got to demonstrate some balance; 1.2 billion people can't be ignored," Daschle said on "Fox News Sunday" a few hours after President Clinton met in Manila, Philippines, with China's president, Jiang Zemin.

China's most-favored-nation trade status must be reviewed every year. Clinton initially insisted on linking human rights with trade and other issues but reversed himself in 1994 under pressure from Beijing.

Daschle, D-S.D., said, "I think MFN is going to be a factor with regard to China for a long time to come. I favor making it permanent. I think we've got to get on with it."

"I don't know that MFN, the concept of MFN, is really what it used to be. We ought to say normalize relations," Daschle said. "We ought to have some sort of an acronym for having the normal process of economic interchange in our relations with China and other countries. I think MFN is that today, but I think it's misnamed."

It's not that human rights is unimportant, Daschle said, but "in the mix we've got to recognize that trade, that dealing with the issues of nuclear proliferation, that dealing with all of the factors involving the Chinese government are very important.

"And we've got to be engaged."

On NBC's "Meet The Press," National Security Adviser Anthony Lake defended Clinton's decision to stop linking trade and human rights.

"Well, we think the linkage in the first year helped in getting human rights on the agenda with the Chinese in a way that it had never been before," Lake said. "Now we think the best way to pursue it is to have this dialogue with the Chinese, and that's a priority."

He said China's human rights record was "not very good, and we will continue to press them on it, we will continue to pursue our interest in human rights, like our interests in opening the Chinese market and getting good Chinese performance on nonproliferation issues."

"The purpose of our relationship with China is not that it be more and more cool," Lake said.