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POLITICS-US: Clinton’s ‘Strategic Partnership’ with China

ANALYSIS - Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jun 23 1998 (IPS) - Nine years after China cracked down on its “pro-democracy” movement, U.S. President Bill Clinton will arrived in the fabled “Middle Kingdom” this week to try to further his “strategic partnership” with Beijing.

Clinton, who travels first to Xian Thursday before moving on to to Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin, and Hong Kong, will use his trip to offer the public back home a range of images designed to show that China is far more diverse and dynamic than the common perception.

“It gives a real chance for the two presidents to display a different China to the United States, to make clear that China is more than Tienanmen Square…” says Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies of the influential Brookings Institution.

The nine-day visit, the first by an US President since early 1989 marks an important milestone in the administration’s effort to put the relationship more firmly back on track after its dramatic derailment with the “Tienanmen Massacre” in that year.

Hardly coincidentally, the Chinese leadership is staging Clinton’s official welcome in Beijing Saturday on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, immediately adjacent to the famous square from which the army forcibly evicted demonstrators in June 1989, allegedly killing hundreds.

Clinton’s agreement to be welcomed there has been widely assailed by those forces which have strongly opposed his policy of “comprehensive engagement” with China, first enunciated in 1994. They see his acquiescence as symbolic of Clinton’s all-too-eager willingness to appease China at the expense human rights, Taiwan, weapons non-proliferation, unfair trade practices and even national security.

In a token of its dismay, the Republican-led House of Representatives earlier this month voted 305-116 to urge Clinton to boycott the ceremony. “We need to put pressure on Communist China,” declared Rep. Dan Burton. “Are we supposed to look the other way just for the almighty dollar?”

Critics charge that, under Clinton, “engagement” has been motivated primarily by the bilateral commercial relationship which has exploded since 1989.

U.S. exports to China have increased by more than 100 percent in the last nine years, while the value of goods going in the opposite direction has risen by almost 200 percent. That has made China Washington’s largest deficit trading partner, after Japan.

The simmering scandal over the administration’s decision last February to allow a major company to launch satellites on Chinese rockets – despite an ongoing investigation of charges that the same company had transferred sensitive missile technology to Beijing – has been attacked by some Republicans as the evidence that the administration is even willing to sell out national security for the benefit of its business backers.

The Clinton administration, however, argues that the glue which holds the two countries together is much stronger than the dollars generated by big U.S. companies eager to take advantage of a cheap source of labour and a growing market for consumer goods and high technology.

Just 20 years ago, the relationship was based on only one mutual strategic interest – opposition to the Soviet Union. Now China’s importance to the United States spans a whole range of key issues – from the Asian financial crisis to climate change to stability on the Korean peninsula and nuclear-armed South Asia, according to officials.

“The role China chooses to play in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction or encouraging it, in combating or ignoring international crime and drug trafficking, in protecting or degrading the environment, in tearing or building up trade barriers, in respecting or abusing human rights; in resolving difficut situations in Asia or aggravating them …will powerfully shape the next century,” Clinton said in a major policy address this month.

For Clinton, the choice is between “engaging” China as a “strategic partner” or “containing” or “isolating” it as an emergent power bent on threatening US interests and disrupting the regional and global order. The latter, in his view, is certain to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Seeking to isolate China,” he said, “is clearly unworkable.”

Underlying this approach, according to a recent study by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) is the belief that “trends in China are moving inexorably in the ‘right’ direction. That is, China is becoming increasingly interdependent economically with its neighbours and the developed countries of the West and is seen as increasingly unlikely to take disruptive action that would upset these advantageous economic relationships.”

In addition, according to the CRS study, as China becomes more wealthy and builds a better educated and more cosmopolitan citizenry, the populace itself will press Beijing for human rights and democratic government.

Critics, however, accuse Clinton of setting up a false choice between engagement and isolation. “No one, contrary to the President’s recent assertion, is ‘seeking to isolate China,”‘ wrote Robert Kagan and William Kristol, two prominent neo- conservative analysts, in the ‘New York Times’ Monday.

They and others, including many in the human-rights and non-proliferation communities, complain that Clinton’s brand of engagement has become another form of appeasement and that the administration has been too reluctant to confront China on key issues.

“I can’t think of a single situation with regard to China where the administration hasn’t backed off (from confrontation),” Warren Cohen, declared the director of the Woodrow Wilson Centre’s Asia programme.

Human rights activists have been particularly angered by Clinton’s claim that the exile of two key political prisoners, Wei Jingsheng and Wan Dan, in the past year marked progress in the country’s performance.

And non-proliferation groups, while admitting that China has substantially cut cooperation with China and signed a number of international accords, remain concerned about Beijing’s assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear programme and export of chemical and missile technology to countries.

 
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