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Day Of The China Bashers

Pressure mounts on Washington to get tougher with Beijing

Day Of The China Bashers

Pressure mounts on Washington to get tougher with Beijing

Ross H. Munro was braced for the worst. The book he wrote with Richard Bernstein, The Coming Conflict with China, is the kind of popular tract Sinologists love to blast as naive China bashing. But since the book's February release, former journalists Munro and Bernstein have had a lead article in Foreign Affairs and have had up to 10 interviews and talk show appearances a day. Most surprising, Munro says, was the tame criticism they got from Sinologists at seminars at Harvard University and the Asia Society's Los Angeles chapter. "We were steeling ourselves for a very hostile response," he says. Instead, "we've tapped into a great anxiety out there."

The China hawks are having their day. Yes, there has always been some scaremongering, mostly from the right--Jesse A. Helms and his ilk--or human rights groups on the left. And many China-bashing articles in the media seem to be part of a Republican effort to embarrass the Clinton Administration over accusations his campaign took illegal money from pro-Beijing Asian entrepreneurs.

But now, the reassessment of China policy has shifted to think tanks and journals that are closer to the middle ground in Washington and exert real influence on foreign policy. And it's coming at a delicate time--just as high-level diplomacy is in full swing and U.S. and Chinese negotiators seem close to a breakthough on China's entry into the World Trade Organization. If a growing grassroots hostility to China starts to sway Congress, then the White House's brand of go-gentle diplomacy could be forced to change.

The bashers are getting a readier hearing as a stream of news undercuts White House arguments that broad contact with the outside world will encourage Beijing to follow global norms. On Feb. 1, for example, the State Dept. conceded that treatment of dissidents has worsened since the Administration stopped linking it with renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status. Then Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt.-Gen. Patrick Hughes told a Senate committee that China could be a "large-scale regional threat to U.S. interests within the next 10 to 20 years." Previously, the DIA had been dismissive of China's military. Meanwhile, the Commerce Dept. reported that the U.S. trade gap with China swelled by 17%, to $39.5 billion in 1996.

DOOMED. While nobody is saying yet that rapprochement will be blown off course, political sentiment seems to be shifting toward a harder line. Whatever deal Clinton reaches with Beijing on WTO entry could be in for a tough grilling from members of Congress who doubt Beijing's sincerity. Pressure to help Taiwan and Japan modernize their defense systems could grow. Other goals by the pro-China lobby, such as permanent MFN status, look doomed.

The real fear of many China experts is that alarmism will feed a cold war hysteria over any move by Beijing to upgrade its backward industries and military. "Engagement" seeks to assure China's evolution into a responsible member of the global community. The new hawks argue that the issue isn't whether to "engage" China, but how far to go before national interests are compromised. "There is a deep reservation that the Clinton crowd doesn't know what they are doing in China," says former U.S. Ambassador to China James R. Lilley. "The pendulum is starting to swing back toward a more balanced engagement."

One anxiety in Washington is that the Clintonites will get duped in the current WTO talks. Beijing negotiators promise major reforms in the Chinese economy. An agreement would be nice, the hawks argue, but because China lacks a rule of law, how can it be trusted to enforce such pacts? Although China twice has promised to crack down on theft of intellectual property, piracy of music compact disks and computer software is as rampant as ever. "The Administration is touting economic success, but it has very little to show for it," says Greg Mastel of the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington think tank. A vociferous critic of Beijing's trade policies, Mastel has written a book on the Chinese economy.

The growing disappointment over trade could also weaken support from China's biggest friend on Capitol Hill--Corporate America. Last year, when China's economy surged by 9.7% and its exports to the U.S. surged by 13%, its imports from the U.S. were virtually flat. "A lot of commercial expectations were not satisfied in 1996," says David M. Lampton, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. "This has cooled the zeal among the business community" to lobby for China.

The Administration is asking for patience. So far Clinton's China policymakers have reached an agreement on nuclear tests. And in the last two months, sources say, the Administration has gotten high-level signals that top Chinese leaders are serious about resolving their differences with the U.S. over the terms of entry in time for President Jiang Zemin's trip to Washington this fall. Since then, "the negotiations have moved more rapidly than most people expected," says George Washington University China watcher David L. Shambaugh. The cynics, however, aren't convinced the Communist Party and China's immense bureaucracy has reached consensus to dismantle subsidies and protection for its industries.

The last thing the White House needs is for a surge of anti-China feeling to undermine its diplomatic progress and reinforce Beijing's suspicion that the U.S. is conspiring to "contain" China. The irony is that "you now have a situation where the Administration's effort to engage China is succeeding, but without a political base of support," says Richard H. Solomon, the State Dept.'s top East Asia specialist under George Bush. If sensitive events like the July handover of Hong Kong go badly, an anti-China groundswell could send relations into another big chill.