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President Clinton's decision to extend China's favorable trading status kicked off what is expected to be one of the most contentious foreign policy battles in Congress this election year.

But this is likely to be one of those rare debates in which partisanship matters less than enduring differences over whether to use trade as a lever to pressure Beijing on human rights, weapons proliferation and other issues.In officially announcing his intention to renew China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading privileges, the president declared May 20 that the action "is not a referendum on all China's policies. It is a vote for America's interests."

Despite recent strains in Sino-American relations, Clinton echoed the pro-MFN arguments he once criticized when they were advanced by former President Bush.

In a speech to the Pacific Basin Economic Council, he said that revoking MFN for China "would drive us back to a period of mutual isolation and recrimination that would harm America's interests, not advance them."

The announcement came less than a week after the administration threatened $2 billion in punitive sanctions in a dispute over copyright piracy. The White House has set a June 17 deadline for actually imposing the penalties.

The administration's decision on that matter could heavily influence the MFN debate in Congress, where lawmakers have been calling for the administration to take action to crack down on Chinese piracy of U.S. computer software, music recordings and other intellectual property.

Clinton's places him on the same side as outgoing Senate GOP leader Bob Dole of Kansas, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other leading members of both parties who support unfettered trade with Beijing.

It also pits the president against an unlikely alliance of liberals and conservatives, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and GOP presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, who have little in common except a powerful desire to slap China for its human rights abuses, weapons sales, and mushrooming trade surplus with the United States.

Pelosi acknowledged that the opponents of MFN are fighting an uphill battle. She said that even if the House and Senate strip China's trade privileges an unlikely scenario at this point, "there is not a veto-proof majority in Congress for revocation."

Still, she said the opponents would press forward "to shed light on repression in China, unfair trade practices, and the proliferation issues making this world a much more dangerous place."

As in the past, the House appears much more likely to approve the resolution than the Senate does. The House has been a hotbed of anti-China sentiment, and lawmakers there could be more emboldened to support such a measure as a symbolic gesture if they believe it is unlikely to survive a presidential veto.

"It may be seen as a free vote," said one GOP source.

The Senate, meanwhile, has traditionally been more influenced by the lobbying of U.S. corporations with major business stakes in China. Bush was able to rely on the Senate to sustain his vetoes of measures attaching conditions to MFN.

It is unclear whether Dole's departure will change the dynamics in the Senate. Senate GOP Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi, who is favored to succeed Dole as majority leader, has yet to make a firm declaration of support for continued MFN.

"He is inclined to support it, but he has problems over some of China's recent actions," said Lott's spokeswoman. In the past, he has voted for measures restricting trade with China.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who also is running for majority leader, has been a more consistent supporter of unconditional trade with Beijing.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)