Every year, the U.S. president and Congress negotiate -- and debate -- China's trading status. Now, President Bill Clinton wants to grant China permanent normal trade status to eliminate these annual struggles -- and to ease China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). But support for Clinton's plan shows signs of eroding in Congress. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports that Clinton is moving quickly before the support erodes further.
Washington, 9 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton has challenged a reluctant Congress to give China full trading privileges with the United States.
On Wednesday, Clinton submitted legislation to Capitol Hill that would grant it what is known as permanent normal trade relations.
Currently, China's access to American markets must be approved each year by Congress. Because this status is not permanent, China would face almost insurmountable odds against becoming a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). WTO membership would give China much broader opportunities to trade worldwide, and this is seen as a benefit both to China and to its trading partners.
The Senate, the upper house of the U.S. Congress, is believed to have enough votes to grant permanent normal trading relations to China. But many in the House of Representatives, the lower house, oppose this status.
Originally, Clinton was not expected to seek permanent normal trade relations with China until the summer, but many observers say his administration wanted to act before support in Congress erodes further.
James Dorn is a professor of economics at Towson State University in Maryland. He says Clinton had no choice but to act fast.
"There's no question that he'd like to have it done sooner than later and get it off the table."
Clinton is a member of the Democratic Party. His opponents, members of the Republican Party, control Congress, and are likely to delay the bill in the current general election year.
"I think it's going to be a hard sell [difficult negotiation] this year, unfortunately. I'm in favor of China's accession [to the WTO], but I think the thing's going to become a political football the longer they wait."
U.S. critics cite China's poor record on human rights and the fear that trade with China would drain manufacturing jobs from Americans. Most recently, the point to China's threats of military action against Taiwan if it continues to avoid talks about unifying the two countries.
Those who want to grant China permanent normal trade relations say many U.S. businesses and farmers would benefit greatly from increased trade with China. And they contend that the WTO's strict trade rules would be a positive influence on China -- both politically and economically. They contend that to deny normal trade status for China would only isolate it more, make it less likely to improve its human rights record, and encourage it to be more hostile to Taiwan.
On Wednesday, Clinton made a speech on China at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Advanced International Studies. He argued that paving the way for China's entry in the WTO is the only logical choice.
"We can work to pull China in the right direction or we can turn our backs and almost certainly push it in the wrong direction. The WTO agreement will move China in the right direction, it will advance the goals America has worked for in China for the past three decades and of course it will advance our own economic interest."
In fact, Clinton said, voting against granting permanent normal trade relations for China, or PNTR, would help no one.
"Voting against PNTR won't free a single prisoner or create a single job in America, or reassure a single American ally in Asia. It will simple empower the most rigid antidemocratic elements in the Chinese government. It will leave the Chinese people with less contact with the democratic world and more resistance from their own government to outside forces."
Permanent normal trade relations would end the annual congressional scrutiny of China, and that is why some lawmakers are reluctant to grant it.
Normal trade status used to be called "most favored nation" -- or MFN -- trade relations. Such status had to be renewed for a country that traded with the U.S. but did not have a market economy, like China or members of the old Soviet sphere of influence. Today, the only country that requires annual renewal of normal trade relations is China.
MFN status was defined by the U.S. Trade Act of 1974, and amendment to the legislation, known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. This additional legislation was written by Senator Henry Jackson of Washington state and Charles Vanik of Ohio, both members of the Democratic Party. This amendment requires the president to satisfy Congress that China meets certain emigration quotas before its normal trade status can be renewed.