Kennedy on China trade: Nothing, yet


WASHINGTON -- Dick Gephardt was a given -- and in more ways than simply the House Democratic leader's opposition to normal trading relations with China.

Edward Kennedy is something else again.

So large a shadow does Massachusetts' senior senator cast -- he is one of the key figures in the last 30 years of slowly expanding US-Chinese ties -- that what he doesn't do and doesn't say is as important as what he does.

And right now, as the clock starts ticking toward a pivotal vote in the House of Representatives later this month, it is what Mr. Kennedy isn't doing and saying that is central.

President Clinton would dearly love for Mr. Kennedy not just to support his agreement with China, which will slash tariffs and remove other barriers to U.S.-made products in the world's biggest market, not just to support the establishment of permanent trade relations, thus ending the yearly votes on the issue in Congress.

What the president is most anxious for is Mr. Kennedy's advocacy not as a senator but as a national leader.

And at the moment, it appears that Mr. Clinton is not going to get it.

The senator's inclination is not to make his position on trade relations known until after the House has acted. What concerns the president is that the impending vote in the House is close enough that a really big shot like Mr. Kennedy could help enough wavering Democrats to make a difference in the House outcome.

In seeking Mr. Kennedy's support, Clinton administration officials make two points.

The first is that those leading figures who state their positions early will have a chance to be heard on the substantive merits of the issue. The flip side is that the longer a politician waits, the more his position is likely to be viewed as political positioning pure and simple.

The second point is that U.S.-Chinese relations is a Kennedy issue with a lot of history.

Richard Nixon had barely settled in the White House for his first term in 1969 when Mr. Kennedy issued a dramatic call for a fresh look at the obviously failed policy of isolation toward China that had prevailed since Mao Tse-tung's takeover 20 years before.

As recounted by journalist Patrick Tyler in his recently published examination ("A Great Wall") of six U.S. presidents' handling of China, from Nixon through Mr. Clinton, Mr. Kennedy's speech to China experts in New York in March of that year was followed almost immediately by the hints of a Nixon reassessment that eventually led to his historic breakthrough two years later.

Eventually, the Nixon reassessment and Henry Kissinger's secret diplomacy acquired a life of their own, but through this period an awareness that Mr. Kennedy and other leading Democrats were pushing hard for change (Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield of Montana actually applied for a visa to visit Beijing in 1970) helped propel the Nixon initiative forward.

Mr. Kennedy was also a critical figure in the first year of Jimmy Carter's presidency. In a period of foreign policy drift and rivalry between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Mr. Kennedy once again jumped in with a major speech. He called on the president to breathe life into the relationship and move to cut off relations with Taiwan as a prelude to joining what by then were more than 60 nations (including all of America's allies) in establishing formal ties with China. Mr. Kennedy then made a journey to China himself, giving the process another powerful jolt.

Those Kennedy initiatives involved a China much different from the country today. In 1969, the Vietnam War was still going full blast and China was just three years into its ruinous Cultural Revolution. In 1977, Deng Xiaoping had yet to take power and begin the process of economic modernization.

To advocate American isolation from the China of today ignores the great distance that has been traveled, in large part because the United States was engaged; it also ignores the potential of a huge economic market.

No one can question Mr. Kennedy's commitment to human rights or to the interests of America's working families. Nor can anyone ignore his consistent refusal to play protectionist politics as the world's economic interdependence has become more pronounced.

There are political, but not substantive, reasons for his silence now. The fact is that China is a Kennedy issue, and the future of U.S.-Chinese relations is on the line.

Thomas Oliphant is a Boston Globe columnist.

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