A conflict of purpose would seem to throw doubt over the choice Congress must make soon over US trade relations with China.

A conflict of purpose would seem to throw doubt over the choice Congress must make soon over US trade relations with China.

Such conflict, however, is nothing new.

Congress must decide whether to approve an agreement by the Clinton administration to normalize trade with the people's republic. A large number of undecided votes in the House of Representatives, most belonging to Democrats, makes the outcome uncertain.

The trade agreement gives US approval to Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization. If Congress rejects it, China could still become a WTO member but would then not have to honor trade concessions it made under the agreement.

US companies doing business in China thus would face a potential disadvantage in competition with companies from non-US members of the WTO. The imbalance would weaken the trade group.

Opponents to the trade bill raise legitimate concerns, from Beijing's wretched record on human rights, to its escalating threats against Taiwan, to its spotty compliance with existing agreements.

So the looming vote should represent an interesting indication of how the US views trade - whether as a priority interest in its own right or as a lever of influence in international relations.

An administration eager for approval would normally press the priority-interest argument. But this administration cannot comfortably do so.

The Clinton administration hasn't consistently treated trade as a priority interest. It has extended the role of trade sanctions in foreign policy. And it made no serious effort to keep the WTO meeting earlier this year in Seattle from degenerating into an unproductive and foreshortened smashfest appalling to everyone except union leaders, environmental extremists, and opponents of something called globalism.

From the Clinton team, therefore, arguments for the China trade bill based on the overarching advantages of free trade come across as strained.

Hence the plan advanced this week to set up a team of trade specialists to do nothing but monitor Chinese compliance with the trade pact.

It's a splendid diversion. It looks like enforcement and thus might persuade undecided lawmakers to vote for the trade bill.

But would the Chinese trade specialists be any more vigilant about infractions than US companies suffering unfair treatment? What's the point of handling trade complaints involving China more expeditiously than others? Are trade infractions by China worse than those by anyone else?

What does it say about the WTO if the US decides it's necessary to set up its own enforcement mechanism? Isn't that the WTO's purpose? If WTO isn't handling the job, what's the point of all this?

And if China trade vigilantes in the US government actually did turn up problems justifying their existence-meaning WTO couldn't or wouldn't act on them-what exactly would they do? Impose sanctions?

The politics would be much easier if the administration-which wants the right thing here-could make a clean argument based on the compelling advantages of free trade. Once again, however, it finds itself caught in conflicts of its own making.

For that reason, the odds must favor passage of the China trade bill. It is in issues such as this, with conflicts extreme and purposes unclear, that the Clinton political genius works best.

Bob Tippee

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