Washington, 4 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- President Bill Clinton told the U.S. Congress Thursday that despite troubles with China, it remains in the best interests of the United States to continue what is officially known in Washington as "normal trade relations" status with Beijing.
The announcement brought a quick condemnation from Congressman Benjamin Gilman, a Republican from the state of New York who is chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee.
In a statement, Gilman said Clinton is advocating a strategic partnership with a country which, as Gilman contends, is actively engaged in spying on the U.S. and building weapons of mass destruction. He also charged that China is guilty of serious human rights violations. Gilman says that maintaining normal trade ties with China sends the wrong message to Beijing.
However, despite tensions over allegations that China stole nuclear secrets from U.S. research facilities and NATO's mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Clinton said he remains convinced engagement with China is in the United States' interests.
In a statement, Clinton said: "We pursue engagement with our eyes wide open, without illusions. A policy of disengagement and confrontation would only strengthen those in China who oppose greater openness and freedom."
He said the U.S. will continue to speak frankly about bilateral differences and that Washington will firmly protect U.S. national interests.
Clinton sent his message to Congress on Thursday, the eve of the 10th anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing by Chinese troops. It was coincidentally the deadline for submission to the Congress of the president's decision on trade relations with China.
Because of its human rights record, normal trade relations with China are reviewed annually. Clinton noted that normal trade relations with China have been renewed every year since 1980.
Normal trade relations was formerly called Most Favored Nation status. It puts Chinese exports on an equal footing with those of all other U.S. trading partners.
China exported more than $71 billion worth of goods to the U.S. last year. The U.S. exported about $14 billion worth of products to China.
Despite Gilman's criticism, Congress is expected to endorse Clinton's decision after it returns from a brief recess next week. Congressman David Dreier, a Republican from California and an advocate of increased trade with China, said that strengthening economic ties to China has been "a powerful force for positive change."
Congress will have 90 days to decide whether it wants to overturn Clinton's decision. It has never rejected such a request.
However, allegations that the Chinese government tried to influence U.S. elections by funneling donations to President Clinton's Democratic Party plus concerns that Chinese spies stole nuclear technology from the United States has increased congressional anger toward Beijing.