Christopher under fire after Peking debacle

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The Independent Online
AS A POLITICAL miscalculation, last weekend's visit to China by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, is being denounced in Washington as the equivalent of mistakes made last year in US policy towards Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti. One reporter said Mr Christopher arriving in Peking reminded him of the sheriff in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles who rides into town with his gun pointing to his own head shouting 'Stop or I'll shoot.'

The purpose of the trip, which Peking wanted to delay, was to persuade Chinese leaders to make concessions on human rights in return for the renewal of their Most Favoured Nation trading status, which allows dollars 23bn ( pounds 15.5bn) of Chinese exports to enter the US without prohibitive tariffs. A secondary aim was to improve US business opportunities.

Mr Christopher failed on both scores. The Chinese went out of their way to show they would not be pushed into concessions on human rights by staging a very public round-up of dissidents. The result is that President Clinton is heading for a showdown with China, which he does not want, when the trade deal comes up for renewal in June.

Blame for provoking a crisis is being laid at the door of Mr Christopher. The debacle may well help shorten his stay at the State Department. As happened in Somalia and Haiti, the US has tried to enforce its will by loud threats. But once again their targets, in this case the Chinese, did not believe President Clinton really planned to carry them out.

Faced with a humiliation, the Clinton administration might end China's Most Favoured Nation status. On the other hand, this cuts against its aim of directing foreign policy towards creating jobs and business opportunities. In all, some dollars 32bn in trade is under threat. Only dollars 9bn of this is American exports, but US business has been putting pressure on Mr Clinton to back down.

The Chinese have left no doubt that they consider demands over human rights as meddling in their affairs, even though Mr Christopher toned down his remarks on this issue. The Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, said yesterday that the collapse of US- China trade would cause severe economic damage to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

President Clinton says he is disappointed at the outcome of the Peking talks. But their failure is in part the result of the President's tendency to try to straddle contradictory policies, attempting to satisfy human rights protagonists and, at the same time, US business in China. As Jim Hoagland, a Washington Post columnist puts it, Mr Christopher's diplomatic foray to China 'makes his handling of Bosnia look brilliant by comparison'.