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Clinton Begins Campaign to Win Support for China Policy

By John F. Harris and Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post

Unfazed by attacks on his policy towards Beijing from a multitude of critics on the left and right, President Clinton over the next week will embark on his first sustained campaign to win Americans over to a vision of U.S.-China relations in which broad common interests outweigh any single point of conflict.

In a speech Friday designed to set the tone for Chinese President Jiang Zemin's state visit here next week, aides said Clinton will make a case for the virtually uncontested view within the administration that cooperation, not confrontation, is the most promising way to coax Beijing toward greater freedom for its citizens, and a more responsible role around the world.

His afternoon appearance at the Voice of America will be the first time Clinton has devoted an address solely to U.S.-China relations, and administration aides acknowledge that he is in some measure playing defense. After mostly avoiding the subject before domestic audiences, Clinton now needs to ensure that his voice - not those attacking Beijing on subjects as diverse as human rights, environmental policy, or military proliferation - carries the clearest message during the summit.

At one time, Clinton was in sympathy with many of these critics. But, after accusing George Bush in the 1992 campaign of "coddling" Beijing, he quickly reversed course after discovering that the Chinese did not respond to confrontational tactics. While Clinton's policy has strong support among big business and elite foreign policy circles, administrations officials say he must now make the same case to a broader public.

If he doesn't succeed, administration officials said, a summit that Clinton hopes will officially end the eight-year chill in relations that began after the massacre of pro-democracy forces at Tiananmen Square could end up actually increasing the suspicion many Americans hold toward a nation that contains one-quarter of the earth's population.

Clinton's goal in the summit, according to White House National Security Adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, is a "better sense among the American people as to why engagement with China is a pragmatic way of proceeding.

"It doesn't mean we embrace China, doesn't mean that we agree with everything that they do - in fact to the contrary," Berger said. "But we cannot isolate China; we can only isolate ourselves from China."

In briefings this week, administration officials stressed - and independent analysts largely agreed - that the fact the state visit is taking place may be more important than any substantive agreements that emerge from it.

Clinton and Jiang will meet once in a working session for only 90 minutes. Despite the White House effort to lower expectations, administration officials in Beijing are currently in the midst of frenetic, last-minute negotiations to assure that some concrete gains do emerge. The most likely prospect, U.S. officials said, is a pledge by Beijing to limit exports of nuclear equipment and technology to states like Iran, enabling Clinton to authorize sales of U.S.-made nuclear reactors to China.

Also in the works is an agreement to expand U.S.-China military cooperation. The Chinese have refused a U.S. proposal for joint field exercises, officials said, but seem close to accepting a plan for smaller-scale cooperation, such as "table-top" war games not involving actual troops or equipment.

But administration officials this week have said they didn't expect any gains on human rights, though they remained hopeful that Jiang would order the release of prominent dissidents. While they once hoped to make some incremental gains in negotiations for China's accession to the World Trade Organization, the issue is now mostly off the table.

Although Clinton hopes to develop a personal bond with Jiang, the White House is more concerned about how the Chinese leader reveals himself in public than in his private sessions with Clinton. Jiang's visit has prompted criticism of China from voices as disparate as liberal actor Richard Gere, appalled by China's stance toward Tibet, to conservative activist Oliver North, who joined with former Joint Chiefs Chairman Thomas Moorer in a letter to Clinton this week said that administration "appeasement" have permitted China "to become a rogue superpower." In Congress, there are now more than four-dozen pieces of legislation that would denounce or impose sanctions on China.

When Clinton and Jiang meet on Wednesday, there will be protesters gathered on Lafayette Square. Similar protests are expected at virtually every stop he makes.