BEIJING -- President Clinton is "very likely" to attach conditions to renewing China's favorable trade status with the United States, a U.S. official said here yesterday.
It was the most direct U.S. threat to date over China's human rights abuses and other U.S. concerns, and it could presage a downturn in Sino-American relations.
The U.S. official spoke on the condition of anonymity after two days of talks failed to yield any changes in China's positions on human rights, arms sales and trade problems. The talks were between Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Chinese officials.
President Clinton must decide by June 3 whether and how to renew China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status with the United States, a status allowing its exports to enter America under the same low tariffs as many other nations.
The president vowed during his election campaign last fall to take a tough stance toward China.
He is under pressure from Congress to hinge China's favored nation renewal on specific improvements in its human rights abuses and a long list of other U.S. concerns -- conditions that President George Bush vetoed.
Attaching conditions to the renewal is a high-risk strategy. Chinese leaders consistently have said over the last several years that they would not accept any conditions and would retaliate with both economic and political measures.
The Chinese economy relies heavily on more than $25 billion a year worth of exports to the U.S. market, but a top Chinese trade official last week even played down the potential impact on China of losing its favor nation standing, saying: "Our economy would still develop normally."
Chinese media had no immediate comment yesterday after the end of Mr. Lord's meetings.
Chinese leaders appear to believe that the steps they've already taken -- including releasing from prison some political and religious dissidents and allowing others to leave the country -- may be enough to satisfy U.S. concerns.
But Mr. Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China, warned Chinese officials that the United States is looking for more
actions to put "the president and the Congress in a better position to make more positive decisions with respect to MFN," the U.S. official said.
"I think the Chinese are under no illusions -- they should not have been before this trip and they certainly are under no illusions now -- of the seriousness of this situation and of the fact conditions are very likely," the U.S. official said. "We have noted some movement by the Chinese over recent months, and we have welcomed that, but much more work needs to be done."
The U.S. official stressed that the United States is not making new demands of China, but "just asking the Chinese to implement agreements they've already signed on to. . . . Rather than doing us a favor, these are agreements that they've already made."
These agreements include promises by China to open its markets further to U.S. imports, to prevent the export to the United States of goods made in Chinese prisons and to not sell missiles and certain other arms technologies -- promises that many say China has fully kept.
The U.S. official would not specify the conditions Mr. Clinton might attach to China's favored-nation renewal.
But bills already filed in Congress link renewal of the favorable trade status in 1994 to specific actions on a host of U.S. concerns, from human rights to trade malpractices.
And the U.S. official said the Clinton administration wants to strike a "unified position" with Congress -- while trying to not take the trade privilege from China.
"Whatever conditions . . . they'll obviously be serious ones. . .," the U.S. official said. "The objective has always been to make progress and not to actually lose MFN, which would have some harmful effects."