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Jiang Muddies the Waters


September 12, 2000

Chinese President Jiang Zemin is nothing if not a gambler. Just days before this week's crucial U.S. Senate vote on granting China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with the U.S., Mr. Jiang raised an issue that will have many Senators seeing red. He said, in effect, that Taiwan should not be admitted to the World Trade Organization on any conditions other than those set by Beijing.

Jiang Zemin

Addressing a business group during his visit to New York for the United Nations summit, Mr. Jiang said that of course Taiwan could join the WTO, but only as a part of China. Now, this statement is subject to various interpretations, and some might say it is only semantics. But many Senators will want to know whether they are being asked to approve PNTR under conditions laid down solely by China, with little regard for U.S. interests.

We have argued here that granting China PNTR as a prelude to China's admission to the WTO is a good idea. It would open China further to Western trade and investment, hastening the development in China of free enterprise and a propertied middle class. A more enlightened and influential electorate will gradually demand more explicit civil rights and require governments at all levels to become more responsive to the wishes of the people.

But we also have supported the right of the Taiwanese, who already have a functioning democracy, to chart their own course toward better relations with the mainland, without undue pressure from Beijing. This attitude toward Taiwan is shared by an influential bloc in Congress that won't appreciate Mr. Jiang laying down conditions for Taiwan's WTO membership. It is well known in Congress that Taiwan qualified, in a technical sense, for membership a long time ago. It was thought that Taiwanese membership was an implicit part of the deal that grants China PNTR.

If there has been a dangerous misunderstanding here, it is largely Bill Clinton's fault. On his visit to China in 1998 he imprudently agreed to what the Chinese government called the "Three No's." At the root of these three demands was the requirement that the U.S. not grant Taiwan admission to any world body that required statehood as a condition of membership. While that didn't specifically apply to the WTO, Mr. Clinton's agreement was tantamount to allowing China to set the conditions for future Western policy toward Taiwan. It came close to an acknowledgement that Taiwan is a Chinese province.

So now Mr. Jiang feels emboldened to come to the U.S. and give speeches implying that Taiwan must accept China as its parent if it wants to get the same trading privileges that the Senate is about to grant to China. No doubt Mr. Jiang was inspired by other recent U.S. concessions.

For example, because of Chinese objections, the Dalai Lama was not allowed to participate in the religious gathering that preceded the summit. China's harsh control of Tibet, like its hoped-for acquisition of Taiwan, is seen by Beijing as nobody else's business, and one might easily get the impression that the Clinton Administration agrees.

Given all the kow-towing that Bill Clinton has done, not to mention the China angle in the Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising scandals, it was no surprise that the Chinese president treated him with some disdain when the two sat down for a chat last Friday. Mr. Clinton, in yet another concession to China, had just announced that his Administration would make no further efforts to build a national missile defense. When Mr. Clinton raised the issue of missiles as a threat to Western security, Mr. Jiang responded with silence. And when Taiwan came up, he favored Mr. Clinton with a long monologue laying out China's historical claims to Taiwan. In short, Mr. Clinton got a cold shoulder on both of these important issues.

These are the fruits of a Clinton policy that has, in effect, left Taiwan blowing in the wind. Try as he may now, Mr. Clinton is hard pressed to put a positive spin on his China legacy. The nuclear proliferation issues that have bedeviled Sino-U.S. relations since he took office in 1993 remain essentially unresolved. And by violating the security assurances of his Republican Party predecessors, he has left his successor a tinderbox situation in the Taiwan Strait.

This is why Mr. Clinton knows China's accession to the WTO is about much more than the mutual benefits of expanded global trade. He's gambling it will head off -- Communist Party or no -- the kind of militant Chinese nationalism that could spark a shooting war across the Taiwan Strait, force a U.S. military response and perhaps envelop the rest of Asia.

Thus, the peace dividend; within China, WTO will empower a bloc of interests favoring outward-oriented growth and the conditions required to secure it, including peace and the rule of law. Dependent on Taiwanese and Western commerce, China would reconsider military adventurism as too costly and counterproductive.

It all sounds good. Indeed, China's membership in the WTO is, in the words of one observer, the "Rubicon of its opening to the outside world," since all previous efforts to integrate its economy with the world trading community have been unsuccessful. But this assumes a lot.

It assumes China's behavior amid change will be predictable, that it will set aside the longstanding historical grievances and nationalist claims that fuel its commitment to an extension of regional power in Asia through the acquisition of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It assumes that, in the absence of stronger cooperative security ties with Europe and Japan and deterrents such as theater missile defense, future U.S. administrations will be able to "manage" relations with China.

In the best of the possible worlds we imagine, international economic institutions like the WTO may very well help spread among some nations the practice of a decentralized and pluralistic brand of governance. But trade agreements and their trickle-down effects alone cannot suffice for a coherent, long-term national security policy that squarely faces up to the realities of America's emerging strategic threats.

At the least the debate will serve notice that some very sensible people in the Senate realize the U.S. cannot hang its future security relationship with China, and Taiwan, on WTO, as President Clinton seems to have done. It remains for the next Administration to fix this mistake.

For now, WTO is the matter before the Senate. It is too bad that Mr. Jiang and Mr. Clinton have gone out of their way to make it difficult for Senators to vote in favor of this otherwise positive step in U.S.-China relations.