The Magazine


Sep 13, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 48 • By GREG MASTEL
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In theory, scrutiny by the World Trade Organization itself would replace the threat of unilateral sanctions. The possibility of multilateral pressure on China to move away from its mercantilist policies is promising in concept, but it is not at all clear how successful the WTO would be at disciplining China. Beijing has proven adept at playing international politics to divide its critics and frustrate efforts to isolate it or challenge its policies. For example, it has adroitly employed a combination of developing-country rhetoric and economic threats to block criticism of its human rights policies at the United Nations.

Further, the WTO is a rule-based institution, much like a U.S. court. China, however, is not a rule-based society, and policy is often made without a transparent paper trail. It may prove difficult even to establish the existence of objectionable Chinese trade policies before a WTO dispute-settlement panel, much less win a ruling against them.

Conceivably, a WTO accession agreement that included very tough oversight measures would actually improve the prospects for American trade with China. But Beijing has strongly opposed such provisions, and a Clinton administration that sees China's WTO accession as part of its "legacy" seems unlikely to press the matter.

In 1992, candidate Clinton attacked President Bush for kowtowing to the Chinese. Perhaps swayed by eagerness for a foreign policy success, as well as by the lobbying of some U.S. companies, the Clinton administration has pursued policies nearly identical to those of the Bush administration. Indeed, it has repeated Bush's mistakes. President Clinton and his team have allowed engagement to blind them to the dark side of the Beijing regime and obscure America's interest in relation to China. With a largely unenforceable trade agreement at the core of their strategy, they seem willing to accept on faith the promises of China's leaders to fulfill hundreds of complex trade commitments.

Foreign policy mavens are fond of blasting Congress and elections for distorting U.S. foreign policy. In this instance, however, Congress and the upcoming elections provide the best chance to reverse a flawed foreign policy. Congress, to which the Constitution assigns responsibility for international trade, could ignore the blandishments of China's apologists and demand that any WTO agreement be truly enforceable -- even if that means slowing the bandwagon for China's membership.

In addition, Vice President Al Gore or the leading Republican contender for the presidential nomination, George W. Bush, could decide to distinguish himself from his political predecessors and propose a more realistic policy toward China. A powerful statement from Bush in particular on this topic would probably give the administration and Congress pause.

If President Clinton and President Jiang announce a deal this week, future historians will wonder at the logic that led Washington to accede to China's wish for WTO membership even as Beijing threatened possibly imminent military action against Taiwan. But even if China makes no military move, the United States is striking a deal likely to be celebrated for mere months and regretted for decades.

Greg Mastel is director of the Global Economic Policy Project (GEPP) at the New America Foundation.