WASHINGTON -- The new round of controversy over President Clinton's trip to China later this month raises some basic questions about both the administration's policy and its political smarts.
It doesn't take a political genius to know that the notion of a U.S. president taking part in a ceremony in Tiananmen Square was going to evoke just the kind of heated reaction that is coming now from both conservatives and liberals. It was, after all, only nine years ago that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese dissidents were killed in Tiananmen Square by the same government that will be greeting Mr. Clinton there. Who has forgotten the television pictures of the young man defying the tank?
But the White House is acting surprised at the stink, which makes you wonder how far out of touch with their constituents the president and his advisers have become. The evidence of their surprise is clear in the decision to suddenly schedule a presidential speech to explain himself on the China trip.
Mr. Clinton says that accepting the Tiananmen Square welcoming ceremony was simply a case of "observing their diplomatic protocol" and would not prevent him from making his views on human rights clear. But the obvious question is why the White House didn't make it plain to the Chinese long ago that such an appearance would not be acceptable. They might have been insulted but, even with their noses out of joint, it is hard to imagine the Chinese not accepting such a condition. The visit from a U.S. president is far more important to them than it is to the United States.
There is, however, a more fundamental question about the whole policy of tiptoeing around China that Mr. Clinton has followed despite his 1992 campaign attacks on George Bush for kowtowing to the Chinese in the aftermath of the massacre.
No sensible person would argue with the administration's argument that "engagement" with China is essential to a stable world order. And that engagement may be even more important now that India and Pakistan have achieved a nuclear weapons capability. Such a policy is also essential, although no one puts it quite so baldly, to American businesses that see China as one huge market for their products. That business concern is clearly a driving force in U.S. policy, as perhaps it should be at least to a degree.
You have to wonder, however, if anyone ever examines the other side of that coin -- the fact that the Chinese need a healthy trade relationship even more than does the United States. So what would happen if we applied a little more leverage on the Chinese, either in terms of their "most favored nation" trading status or, in this case, in terms of how they conduct a state visit?
No one knows the answer because neither this administration nor the Republican one that preceded it has tested such an approach.
The one thing that is clear is that kowtowing has not paid handsome dividends. The Chinese may agree to release another prominent dissident from prison as a gesture during Mr. Clinton's visit; that is something they have done in the past. But the hard fact remains that they continue to practice political repression. In the past few days it has been disclosed that security forces have been interrogating Chinese with ties to the United States in an attempt to stifle demonstrations against the Clinton visit.
Neither have the Chinese demonstrated through their actions that they want to cooperate in preventing the spread of weapons technology to rogue states. Despite our policy of "engagement," they have continued to sell arms to terrorist regimes.
The Clinton trip was certain to be controversial because of the investigations of whether Chinese money was contributed to his campaign in 1996 and why he approved a sale of satellite technology to China. But the argument over Tiananmen Square might have been avoided if the White House understood how many Americans have such vivid memories of what happened there nine years ago.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 6/15/98