Funding row taints Gore's visit to Asia

Almost certainly, China is the last place Vice-President Al Gore would like to be right now. But once made, diplomatic schedules are not easily unmade - and so it is that the man described as the ruthless "Solicitor- in-Chief" of Democratic campaign donations last year arrives tonight in the country that stands accused of trying to subvert United States politics in those same elections of 1996.

Mr Gore's trip to East Asia was to have been another building block for a White House run of his own in 2000, paving the way for an exchange of official visits between Presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin. It was intended as a step towards a new relationship between the world's most powerful country and its most populous, burnishing his own foreign policy credentials in the process.

Alas for such well-laid plans. Washington's vaunted strategy of "constructive engagement" with Peking lies half-crushed by the spreading campaign finance scandal here, of which China's alleged efforts to channel money to Democratic candidates in 1996 are the most serious single component.

In political Washington, "China" is probably the dirtiest word around. A host of issues, from human rights to Taiwan to trade, have been exacerbated by the row.

While the Chinese government itself adamantly denies any wrongdoing, even if Peking did allocate $2m (pounds 1.25m) for the purpose (as has been claimed), neither the FBI nor the Congressional committees probing the affair have produced evidence that donations were actually made. But Mr Gore's dilemma is none the less for that.

Normally, the signing of a huge commercial jet order is just the sort of occasion an ambitious politician like Mr Gore would never miss. This time, the Vice-President considered skipping the ceremony for a Chinese purchase of $1bn-worth of Boeing 777s, given the rampant anti-China mood in Washington. Now it seems he will attend, "if the deal is ready".

The fundraising row, the Vice-President declared as he left on Saturday for a first stop in Tokyo, "is not what this trip is about", and indeed considerations of diplomacy would argue for the topic to be avoided. But for his own credibility, he cannot be seen to softshuffle the issue - while Washington must be doubly wary of any concession that might be construed as having been bought by political donations from Peking.

Nowhere are strains greater than over trade. America's record $19bn merchandise deficit in January was in good measure due to a 40 per cent surge that month in imports from China, which is on the point of overtaking Japan as owner of the largest single trade surplus with the US.

Hitherto, the argument in Washington has mainly been over linking Peking's human rights performance with the annual extension of its most favoured nation trading status. But the ballooning deficit raises questions over Peking's still more cherished goal of entry into the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation.

Even before the latest trade figures, the anti-China lobby here had been trying to make US approval of China's admission into the WTO conditional on a vote in Congress. Now Mr Gore will carry the message that China must get rid of its tariff and non-tariff barriers to imports from the US and elsewhere if its goods are to enjoy the lower-tariff benefits of WTO membership. The trade imbalance was "unsustainable" for the long-term health of the US economy, said Nancy Pelosi, the California Congresswoman and one of China's harshest critics on Capitol Hill.

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