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Clinton in China Friday, 3 July, 1998, 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK
Clinton battles China syndrome
President Clinton's first trip to China sparked off debate back home
President Clinton faced intense political pressure over his visit to China, as the BBC's Washington correspondent, Bridget Kendall, reports.

From the moment President Clinton was re-elected in November 1996, his advisers were saying that repairing relations with China would be one of his top foreign policy priorities.


His nine-day visit to China and Hong Kong - a return trip following the Chinese president's visit to the United States last autumn - was supposed to highlight the fact that the United States now sees China, not Japan, as its most important strategic and economic partner in Asia.

Mr Clinton is the first US president to visit Beijing since the Tiananmen Square massacre nine years ago. His aides hoped this would be the crowning foreign trip of his second term - and a welcome distraction from the sex scandals preoccupying Washington.

Instead, in the weeks ahead of his departure, it was clear Mr Clinton's professed policy of engagement with China is still highly controversial. Republicans in Congress have been hungry for any opportunity to question President Clinton's leadership ahead of what are expected to be closely fought mid-term elections that will decide which party controls Congress this November.

Inviting controversy

Public distaste for the Monica Lewinsky scandal has made this a subject the president's opponents would rather steer clear of. Instead, they have quickly seized on the pretext to hold Congressional hearing after hearing and examine in detail every aspect of US relations with China.

President Clinton and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, in 1997 in the US
President Clinton and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, in 1997 in the US
The first sign of trouble emerged in American press reports this spring that suggested US firms eager to do business with China may have put pressure on the administration to ease controls on sensitive exports to China - particularly if the firm in question was a substantial donor to the Democratic party. That gave Republicans ammunition. After all, they had already a year ago held a series of inconclusive hearings trying to prove that illegal contributions from Asian donors to the Clinton re-election campaign had been designed to influence US foreign policy. Here was another opportunity.

Then it was revealed that one US firm which had exported commercial satellites to China was the subject of a criminal investigation for having leaked potentially sensitive technology to the Chinese military. This concerned information that the Chinese could possibly have used to enhance the long range nuclear missiles they still have targeted at American cities.

What particularly incensed Mr Clinton's critics (and worried his Democratic supporters) was that the chairman of the Lorel satellite company, Bernard Schwartz, was also the Democratic party's biggest donor.

President Clinton has been distracted by new controversy
President Clinton has been distracted by new controversy
Both Mr Schwartz and the White House vehemently denied any impropriety. That didn't stop politicians on Capitol Hill from taking action. One hundred and fifty members of Congress wrote to the President urging him to cancel his China trip. In both the Senate and the House, Republicans ordered special investigations into whether US technology transfers to China had threatened national security interests.

Further outrage explodes

Then followed the nuclear tests, first in India and then in Pakistan. China's export of missile technology to Pakistan had for years been a stumbling block to better relations. Now Mr Clinton's critics had further reason to question his policy of engagement with China.

Some even argued it was the United States that was ultimately to blame for the crisis: by failing to maintain a tough line against Chinese nuclear exports to Pakistan, they claimed, the US had indirectly raised the nuclear stakes in South East Asia.

The US Congress
Opposition in Congress disapproves of relations with China
The outcry led to yet more hearings. In this political climate, the Clinton administration stopped signalling its hopes that the upcoming summit might be the right occasion to lift the last remaining US sanctions imposed in retaliation for the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Quite the opposite: the fact that President Clinton had consented to a formal welcoming ceremony on Tiananmen Square had now become an embarrassment - yet one more proof cited by his critics that the US President was no longer prepared to stand up to the Chinese, neither on strategic questions like nuclear proliferation nor on their human rights record.

All in the timing

Faced with what must be an unprecedented barrage of domestic criticism ahead of a major presidential foreign visit, the Clinton administration has worked hard to answer its critics. Numerous speeches by the president and senior members of his team have carefully gone through the reasons why engagement with China is important - especially at a time when the rest of Asia is in financial turmoil.

Republican George Bush was the last President to visit China
Republican George Bush was the last president to visit China
Careful timing ensured that the welcoming ceremony on Tiananman Square took place in the early hours of Saturday morning Eastern Standard Time - too late for the morning newspapers, too late for the main Friday evening TV news shows. But the Clinton White House can perhaps afford to be patient. Even if the President returns to the US to yet more Congressional criticism, he is well aware that much of this is pre-election politicking.

He also knows the perennial debate in the US over how to manage relations with China does not neatly divide along party lines. Social conservatives in the Republican party incensed at China's abortion policy find themselves on the same side as liberal Democrats and labour union leaders concerned at conditions in Chinese prisons.

The powerful American business interests that see China primarily as a commercial opportunity hold sway in both parties. Whatever their professed outrage at possible national security lapses or human rights abuses, when it comes down to it, the Republicans agree with Mr Clinton.

Every fourth person in the world lives in China, it is potentially the United States' most important trading partner, and the US can't afford to jeopardise such an important relationship.

Links to more Clinton in China stories are at the foot of the page.


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