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Trip Marks A Turning Point

President Clinton's trip to China marks a key turning point in his policy of "constructive engagement." He will be the first U.S. chief executive to go to China since the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

In February 1990, Congress formalized sanctions against China - some of which had already been imposed by the Bush administration - and Beijing's leaders became international pariahs.

Many of those sanctions have since been lifted or substantially eased, though some - like the suspension of nuclear trade, satellite exports (subject to presidential waiver), and certain trade programs - remain basically in place. reports on President Clinton's trip to China
President Clinton's nine-day tour of China will be a major step in the administration's effort to gradually "normalize" relations with a growing economic and military power in Asia and globally. His four-day state visit in Beijing, the centerpiece of the trip, will also confer great legitimacy on the government of Jiang Zemin.

From China's point of view, President Clinton's mere presence will signify that the "post-Tianamen" era has arrived, and this will have enormous propaganda value.

The visit was scheduled to reciprocate President Jiang Zemin's summit with President Clinton in Washington in October 1997. But the groundwork was laid much earlier, following the administration's decision in May 1994 to "delink" human rights from the annual renewal of China's Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status.

While admitting that China had not made significant progress in many of the areas outlined in an Executive Order issued the previous year, President Clinton abandoned the linkage. Instead, the administration decided to pursue a series of intensive, high level political, economic and military contacts in order to ease tensions with Beijing.

In June 1995, Taiwan's president, Lee Tenghui, came to the U.S., triggering a further downturn in relations. The administration attempted to separate those issues where they felt some level of cooperation with Beijing might be possible, such as the environment, or regional problems like North Korea. But sharp differences remain on the growing trade deficit, China's nonproliferation record, and human rights.

From 1993 through 1997, President Clinton and Jiang met in the margins of U.N. gatherings and at the annual APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) forums. These were largely pro-forma encounters, though they provided an opportunity discuss some issues n the agenda of both governments.

The president goes to China at a time when his policy is under fierce attack on Capitol Hill. Some believe the administration has yet to articulate an effective, long-term strategy for fully moving China into the international community.

Others are dubious about any possible overlap or convergence between Washington and Beijing's interests. And some apparently see the debate as an opportunity to build a broader, partisan argument against Clinton foreign policy generally.

The official welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square has become a lightning rod for much of the criticism, and President Clinton's attempts to explain why he intends to go the square has failed to quell dissent in Congress, from human rights groups, and others.

There is no clear framework for measuring "success" at the summit. But the future of the U.S.-China policy will depend, in large part, on perceptions of how President Clinton handles China's leaders and whether his visit yields concrete results.

Mike Jendrzejczyk is the Washington Director for Human Rights Watch/Asia (formerly Asia Watch), a private, independent, human rights monitoring organization. He is an expert on policy issues and human rights concerns in Asia.

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