Clinton victory as Senate votes for China trade pact

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The Independent Online

The US Senate was set to hand President Clinton a signal victory last night, voting by a solid majority to normalise trade relations with China despite international unease over its human rights record.

The US Senate was set to hand President Clinton a signal victory last night, voting by a solid majority to normalise trade relations with China despite international unease over its human rights record.

Passage of the Bill, which grants China permanent "most favoured nation" status and clears the way for it to join the World Trade Organisation, is likely to be seen as one of the biggest achievements of Bill Clinton's presidency.

The White House said that the vote would mark a turning point in US-China relations, comparable to Richard Nixon's epoch-making visit to Peking in 1972. The US trade representative, Charlene Barshevsky, said the new law not only provided "tremendous opportunities for US workers, farmers and businesses", it was also "the best way to promote reform in China and stability in the region". The retiring senator for New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, described the vote as one of the most important since the Second World War.

Once Mr Clinton signs the Bill into law, Congress will be able to abandon its annual jousting match over "most favoured nation trading status" for China, which has been a hostage to political circumstances for the past 20 years.

Yesterday's vote followed days of impassioned debate on the Senate floor and in committee, where opponents of the Bill argued that it granted one-sided trade advantages to China and would only depress wages and lead to job losses in the United States. China currently enjoys a $68bn (£48bn) surplus in trade with the US, supplying it with all manner of low-priced consumer goods, from toys to telephones and kitchen appliances.

While opposition was spearheaded by trade unions on the left, there was equally vocal opposition from human rights groups and from the religious right, which argued that trade privileges should not be granted without undertakings from China on the treatment of religious believers.

Among the most fervent supporters of the Bill were farmers in the American Mid-west, who hope for greatly increased grain exports to China, as well as big American corporations wanting a slice of thepotentially vast Chinese market for everything from banking, telecommunications and insurance to food.

As recently as the start of this week, there had been fears in the White House that opponents of the Bill might thwart its passage either by engineering votes for amendments that would negate its overall purpose, or by blocking a vote on the Bill as a whole. The Republican Senate leaders, however, were under pressure from two quarters: from big companies banking on an improved access to the potentially vast Chinese market and from colleagues facing re-election in November.

Congressional leaders in both chambers are keen to wrap up proceedings as quickly as is politically possible so as to adjourn for the election. Every additional day spent discussing legislation in Washington is one day fewer on the campaign trail for those of their colleagues facing re-election. And in a year when control of both houses is at stake, this is something they want to avoid.

While opposition to the Bill in the Senate was fierce, there was no doubt which way the vote would go once it was scheduled: the battle was to persuade the chairman of the foreign relations committee, Jesse Helms, to schedule it. The more public battle - and probably the sweeter victory for the White House - was in the House of Representatives in May, when Mr Clinton marshalled all his political and diplomatic skills to secure the Bill's passage by an unexpectedly strong majority after weeks of no-holds-barred lobbying by either side.

Mr Clinton, who has just four months left in office, has made free trade a central cause of his presidency and the China trade Bill into an almost personal crusade.

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