Clinton's China trip will be fodder for much political debate


WASHINGTON -- In this age of attack dog politics, the notion that partisanship ends at the water's edge seems almost quaint. It is premised on a kind of civility that has all but vanished from the relationship between the White House and Congress and between Democrats and Republicans.

So it is not surprising that President Clinton is under extraordinary pressure to meet competing and sometimes contradictory expectations on the part of Americans as he spends his nine days in China. By braying until the last minute that the president should cancel the trip, the Republican conservatives in the House of Representatives have made it certain a new debate will break out once Mr. Clinton returns no matter how he handles himself.

The context has been made even more awkward by the Chinese leaders themselves in their decision to deny entry into the country of three journalists employed by Radio Free Asia. Mr. Clinton called the decision a "big mistake" and made a point of giving the three an interview before he left. But in the end, he chose to swallow the affront in the interests of the bigger picture, meaning the need to pursue a policy of "engagement" with China.

It is essentially the same rationale Mr. Clinton used in agreeing to China's insistence on holding a welcoming ceremony on Tiananmen Square, the scene of the slaughter by the government of young Chinese dissidents nine years ago.

Accepting China's ceremonial protocol, the White House argues, not the same thing as accepting its view of what happened in 1989.

It does make you wonder, however, at what point the president might draw a line and test the proposition that his visit may be more important to the Chinese than it is to the United States, even granting the extraordinary commercial stakes involved for U.S. businesses.

The Republican attacks on Mr. Clinton are, however, far more difficult to justify than is his policy. The Democratic president is, after all, following essentially the same policy that Ronald Reagan and George Bush embraced in their 12 years of Republican rule.

In fact, when it comes to kowtowing, Mr. Bush took the cake when he secretly sent his national security adviser to make nice in Beijing only a few months after the Tiananmen massacre. That initiative was condemned by Mr. Clinton in the strongest terms during the 1992 election campaign. But once again we have seen that campaign rhetoric is one thing and performance in office is quite another.

As a practical matter, the president probably has little to fear from the pressures being exerted upon him. As a general proposition, the evidence is overwhelming that few Americans pay much attention to foreign policy matters if they don't involve a direct threat of war. We are, in fact, remarkably isolationist for the times in which we live.

The China trip itself seems to be far more controversial within the political world than within the electorate at large. An opinion survey published on the eve of his trip found that 58 percent of Americans approved of the visit while only 32 percent disagreed. These voters also were closely divided on whether Mr. Clinton should criticize China's record on human rights while he is in the country. And the poll found a minority of Americans expect any significant payoff from the president's trip.

These findings suggest Mr. Clinton can make a political triumph out of the visit to China simply by taking care to send the correct message through the networks' television cameras that will provide most Americans their view of the next nine days. This is the kind of thing the president does with extraordinary skill. So don't be surprised to see him using some of his people-to-people meetings with ordinary Chinese citizens to make his case on human rights. Mr. Clinton always believes he can talk his way through anything, and most of the time he has been right.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/29/98

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