The Year China Policy Went Awry

March 17, 1999 - The New York Time

Untangling the various strands of the Clinton Administration's China policy will not be easy in the politically charged atmosphere that prevails in Congress on this issue. But it is essential that the multiple investigations now under way yield a dispassionate assessment of whether the White House was lackadaisical about protecting American security interests, and whether 1996 Clinton campaign fund-raising distorted policy making.

The White House bridles at such speculation, but it has only itself to blame for the public concern that the Clinton re-election campaign may have infected the handling of China in improper ways. It may well be, as the White House insists, that the turn in China policy in 1996 from confrontation toward cooperation was scrupulously insulated from campaign activities. On such a serious charge, the White House deserves the benefit of the doubt unless hard evidence to the contrary is produced.

But the picture of potentially overlapping interests in 1996 bears review. Just as the Clinton campaign was eagerly accepting large donations from contributors who were linked to China or eager to do business there, the Administration was rethinking its policy and fumbling the first of several warnings that China might be stealing advanced nuclear weapons designs from the United States. Congressional leaders must coordinate the work of various House and Senate committees to look closely at this sequence of events.

There was good reason to reconsider China policy. Relations were rocky, and 1996 opened with a confrontation over Chinese threats against Taiwan. Tensions subsided, but both countries were shaken by the crisis, which included the dispatch of American naval forces to waters off Taiwan.

The subsequent White House review of China policy, it is now clear, coincided with other developments that could have filtered into the effort to stabilize relations. American corporate executives with commercial interests in China were generously donating to the Democratic Party. Shadowy sources possibly linked to the Chinese Government were making large contributions to the Clinton campaign that were later found to be improper.

Congress needs to see if the Administration's hesitant handling of the Los Alamos espionage case was shaped in any way by a desire to avoid any new upheaval in relations with China. It is hard to understand why the first notification of possible spying at Los Alamos in April 1996 did not immediately lead the White House to demand the most intensive investigation possible and to order tightened security at the lab. The White House, the Energy Department and the Justice Department let the case drift for months, even though one Energy aide was closely monitoring the spy matter and another quickly ordered enhanced security. His orders were delayed. Congressional leaders say they were not adequately informed about the possible theft of vital nuclear weapons technology.

The Administration must give Representative Christopher Cox and his select committee on China wide latitude in declassifying their report on the transfer of sensitive military technology to the Chinese. It is especially important to determine if campaign contributions played any role in the misguided White House decision in 1996 to make it easier for American companies to export communications satellites with potential military applications. One panel member, the Democrat Norm Dicks, reports that all the officials who testified before the committee denied that campaign considerations played any role in managing relations with China. If they were correct, the White House should not fear publication of the report.

Looking back at the events of 1996, it is interesting to find that Warren Christopher, who was then completing his tenure as Secretary of State, remained wary about rushing to embrace China. Though armed with a new policy of engagement as he made his way to China for the last time that November, Mr. Christopher dropped the word ''partnership'' from the speech he delivered in Shanghai. It ''sounded a little too cozy,'' he recalled later in his book ''In the Stream of History.'' The mystery is why so many of his colleagues failed to see the same thing.

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