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Even though China has broken past promises to check the spread of dangerous technology, the Clinton administration has backed away from its threats to slap Beijing with economic sanctions for selling nuclear technolgy to Pakistan.

But the possibility of a nasty trade war between the two big powers isn't entirely over yet because China continues to violate copyright laws and agreements with the United States.China's status as one of the fastest growing economic markets in the world should not give it immunity from sanctions for such intellectual piracy. But Beijing need not worry much as long as Washington sticks to the policy it demonstrated regarding China's sale of nuclear technology. It's a policy that consists of far more bark than bite.

To its credit, China is working hard to improve its standing in the economic eyes of the world. It has come a long way by emphasizing economic development within its borders and building a competitive market economy.

It has done much to improve living conditions for its people and to bring the nation out of its own "dark ages" politically.

But that's no excuse for its copyright piracy. The International Intellectual Property Alliance, a Washington-based organization representing film, music, computer software and publishing companies, estimates Chinese factories are producing 100 million pirated CDs and other products annually and that copyright piracy in China is costing American businesses $2.3 billion annually.

Beijing has not lived up to a 1995 agreement with the United States in which it promised to crack down on the plants producing pirated materials. There is little evidence to support China's claim it is taking such action. The plants continue to operate.

The Clinton administration has vowed to impose tariffs on many Chinese imports to the United States if the plants are not closed. A list of imports to be targeted by trade sanctions is expected to be published by May 15, and China will have 30 days to comply before the tariffs are imposed.

Beijing has responded in what has become typical Beijing fashion - with a threat to retaliate against U.S. products being exported to China and ignite a full-blown trade war.

What a pity China has not put the same emphasis on diplomacy that it has placed on economic development. In this shrinking world, the two are inseparable.

Beijing is in the wrong. It recognized a year ago that copyright piracy was out of control in China and promised to do something about it. It has not kept that promise and now vows to escalate a reasonable U.S. demand for compliance into an economic cold war. Washington needs to start backing up its tough words to China with tough deeds.