Washington Post


China Engagement

Friday, March 19, 1999; Page A28

THE CLINTON administration likes to tout its policy of engagement with China, but a different kind of engagement has been oddly missing from its reaction to reported Chinese espionage. You would expect President Clinton, Vice President Gore and other stewards of America's nuclear secrets to be indignant -- why not angry? -- at what China has done. But faced with evidence of a serious breach with potentially damaging consequences to U.S. security, their chief response has been to dodge blame and make excuses. It is demeaning. "Well, first of all, on the law enforcement matter that you raise, please keep in mind, that happened during the previous administration," Mr. Gore told CNN. "That happened back in the 1980s."

Everyone understands that governments spy on each other and that the alleged theft of nuclear secrets did indeed take place before Mr. Clinton's term. But people also expect their leaders to make clear when such a theft is uncovered that they find such behavior intolerable and to take immediate steps to prevent a recurrence. Instead, what followed the initial suspicions was a bureaucratic, almost lackadaisical response best illustrated by a letter to this newspaper from former energy secretary Federico Peña. Mr. Peña "completed an extensive review," briefed many officials, "started implementing changes." Why didn't he just slam shut the door? The administration claims it responded adequately, yet in the past week or so, as the scandal has mushroomed, it has announced many more steps to improve security at federal weapons labs. Either the first steps weren't enough or the new measures are excessive; it would seem the administration can't have it both ways.

The long interval between suspicion and real action is especially discouraging because it seems part of a larger pattern. The Clinton administration has been so eager for warm relations with China's Communist regime that it has raised suspicions it will pay too high a price for such friendship -- including downgrading America's friendship with Taiwan, slighting its alliance with Japan, muting its concern about human rights and, possibly, playing down the significance of alleged espionage.

Mr. Clinton and his advisers oversold the benefits and potential benefits of their policy of engagement, heralding great progress where little had taken place. Now that China's human rights record is revealed to have not improved at all, for example, there are the predictable alarms that the relationship is deteriorating, that momentum has been lost.

Two influential senators, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, now urge that China not be admitted to the World Trade Organization because of its human rights record, alleged espionage and other matters. The administration has argued that the WTO decision should be made on its own merits, which is right as far as it goes, meaning if a "commercially viable" deal can be struck, as administration officials have said, then China should be admitted.

But there is a legitimate fear that the administration, eager to salvage something from its policy of engagement when Prime Minister Zhu Rongji visits next month, will accept an inadequate deal and call it -- what else? -- "commercially viable." It would be another way of doing long-term damage to U.S. national interests.