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Jewish World Review March 20, 2000 /14 Adar II, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Chances Improve That China Trade Will Pass Congress -- IN SPITE of multiple misbehavior by China's Communist government, Congress should approve permanent normal trade relations for China - and chances are improving that it will.

The Clinton administration is putting on a full-court press to have PNTR enacted by Memorial Day, and supporters are increasingly confident, despite earlier doubts, that the measure will pass the House.

White House aides expect some - but not serious - falloff from the 260-170 vote by which the House renewed one-year normal trade status to China in 1999 amid the flap over alleged Chinese nuclear espionage.

This year, the administration is seeking votes early enough - first in the Senate, then the House - that election-year pressures don't cause opposition to build.

A complication is insistence by GOP leaders that the White House guarantee 100 Democratic votes for the measure. President Clinton's aides are hoping that Republicans will settle for less and that business groups will pressure the GOP leadership to schedule an early vote.

In 1999, 150 Republicans joined 110 Democrats to maintain China's trade status, with 98 Democrats and 71 Republicans voting against. Clinton aides say opposition estimates that 30 Democrats have switched against China trade are "bogus."

To achieve what he clearly regards as a major item of his presidential legacy, Clinton is meeting regularly with Members in the "Yellow Oval," the family room above the Oval Office. He has Cabinet secretaries calling wavering Members and delivering speeches almost daily. The White House has set up a war room in the Old Executive Office Building to keep tabs on Members' concerns.

And Clinton has assigned Commerce Secretary William Daley, who masterminded the effort to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, to direct the sales effort, along with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Steve Richetti, an experienced vote counter.

Clinton aides say that Vice President Al Gore, who previously allowed his stance on PNTR to be ambiguous, will lobby for the measure, bolstering Democrats who fear retaliation from labor unions if they support it.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who's close to labor, is expected to vote no, but is not lobbying against PNTR.

Instead, according to aides, Gephardt is telling Democrats to vote whichever way will help them win in November and recapture Democratic control of the House.

Gephardt is also said to be urging the unions not to punish Democrats who support PNTR. If they follow that advice in the larger interest of having a Democratic House, it will reduce pressure on Democrats to vote no.

The White House is pushing for an early vote not only to lighten election pressures but also to force Members to focus quickly on the merits of the issue, which favor PNTR.

The economic arguments for PNTR are a no-brainer: China will have to lower its present barriers to U.S. products, creating market opportunities for U.S. producers and jobs for American workers. U.S. markets are already open to Chinese products.

Passage of PNTR also will tighten the terms of China's entry into the World Trade Organization and allow the United States to appeal for enforcement if (or, almost certainly, when) China violates the terms of the U.S.-China trade pact negotiated in November 1999.

While the economic case for PNTR is clear, on the political and strategic level Clinton and pro-PNTR Republicans are making a gamble that free trade will push China toward democracy and international good citizenship.

There is a danger that China's rulers plan to gain the benefits of world commerce - money, technology and management know-how - and use them to dominate Asia militarily and to keep tight control on China's population.

Certainly, China's persistent cracking down on religious groups and political dissenters, missile buildup, use of prison labor, violation of trade agreements and recent threat to use force if Taiwan does not move faster toward reunification are bad signs.

On the other hand, it has happened elsewhere in Asia - in Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, for example - that intensive economic and political contact with the rest of the world helped to turn former dictatorships into democracies.

The prospect that China could follow that model surely would be preferable to a decision now to isolate China from U.S. influence - particularly when Europe won't follow suit and will expand its trade with China without exerting pressure for human rights and democracy.

The best arguments against PNTR - or for delaying it until next year - are that Congress shouldn't reward China just after it's threatened Taiwan and shouldn't give up its power to review Chinese behavior annually.

However, Taiwan itself supports PNTR. The United States should equip Taiwan with the weapons it needs to defend itself from missile attacks - especially Aegis missile destroyers and Patriot missiles - and create an alternate annual monitoring mechanism.

Voting down PNTR would amount to a decision by Congress that China is a long-term strategic adversary. It may become that, but the United States should do what it can to push in the opposite direction.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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