President-elect Clinton has climbed down abruptly from the China-bashing of his campaign, and it's a good thing he has. The last thing he needs as he takes over the White House is a gratuitous, mutually destructive relationship with the world's most populous nation.
Ronald Reagan learned this lesson painfully, but learned it he did he pulled away from the pro-Taiwan line of cold warriors battling monolithic communism. George Bush always took a pragmatic approach to China, even after the Tiananmen Square massacre, asserting it was better to maintain dialogue rather than try the impossible task of isolating so huge a power. For this stand he was savaged by human rights advocates, including Mr. Clinton, who accused him of "coddling" dictators.
Now that Mr. Clinton's inauguration is only 10 weeks away, it is gratifying to see he is modifying his position. During his visit to Washington last week, he came up with the Bush-like statement that "We have a big stake in not isolating China, in seeing that China continues to develop a market economy." Indeed we have.
If the president-elect is serious, he should abandon attempts to shut off normal trading ties with China. Such a policy, if implemented, would strike most harshly at the economic reformers in China who are pushing relentlessly for a more democratic system. It also would undercut the future of Hong Kong, which is counting on U.S. trade ties to remain the chief entrepot for booming southeast China after it becomes part of China in 1997.
The better way to put pressure on China is to maintain a dialogue on human rights and negotiations on trade issues that implicitly carry a political message. Mr. Clinton touched on U.S. leverage and interests in this area when he said: "China now has a $15-billion-a-year trade surplus with us. . . They have a big stake in that."
In the heat of the campaign, President Bush vetoed a measure pushed by Democratic legislators that would have canceled so-called "most favored nation" i.e., normal, trading relations with China unless Beijing released political prisoners and adopted more democratic policies by a date certain. The goals in this legislation were exemplary; the means of achieving them were counter-productive.
Mr. Bush noted in his veto message that China in the past year had joined global efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons and missile technology. Though its arms sales to rogue Third World regimes remain troubling, the point is that China must be encouraged to be a source of world stability, not instability. This will require adroit diplomacy, not partisan demagogy on Mr. Clinton's part.
Jimmy Carter, the last Democrat in the White House, was stuck (( with a foolish campaign vow to pull U.S. troops out of Korea that he gave up with reluctance only after two years of twisting and turning. If Mr. Clinton can jettison excess campaign baggage more quickly and get on with his real job, his compatriots will be grateful.