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Clinton Defends China Policy On Eve of Visit to Tienanmen

By Peter Baker
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

After weeks of pummeling of his outreach to China, President Clinton issued a broad defense Thursday of his decision to seek closer relations with Beijing, arguing that expanding cooperation is critical to preserving U.S. national security and "building a stable international order."

Two weeks before the beginning of his first visit to the world's most populous country, Clinton acknowledged the bipartisan criticism of his policy of engagement. But he said the policy is a "principled, pragmatic approach" that does not gloss over "fundamental differences" with the communist regime while fostering reform through vigorous economic and cultural ties.

"Choosing isolation over engagement would not make the world safer; it would make it more dangerous," the president said. "It would undermine, rather than strengthen, our efforts to foster stability in Asia. It will eliminate, not facilitate, cooperation on issues relating to weapons of mass destruction. It would hinder, not help, the cause of democracy and human rights in China."

The half-hour address at the National Geographic Society came on the same day that a Senate panel opened hearings featuring allegations that U.S. policy had led to sensitive technology passing to the Chinese from private U.S. firms. The talk was intended to help "shape the debate," as an aide put it. Until Thursday, even some supporters had complained that Clinton had not offered the public a comprehensive and coherent case for his policy and the upcoming trip.

When he arrives on his nine-day, five-city journey on June 25, Clinton will be the first U.S. president to visit China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, in which Chinese troops killed hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators. In the most politically charged moment on his schedule, he will participate in a welcoming ceremony at the square, where the Chinese routinely greet visiting heads of state.

Clinton Thursday disputed suggestions "that somehow going there would absolve the Chinese government of its responsibility for the terrible killings at Tiananmen Square nine years ago or indicate that America is no longer concerned about such conduct." Instead, he said, Beijing must "recognize the reality that what the government did was wrong."

Yet he maintained there was little to gain by snubbing his hosts. "We do not ignore the value of symbols," he said. "But in the end, if the choice is between making a symbolic point and making a real difference, I choose to make the difference."

Critics remained unpersuaded, assailing both his overall philosophy and his failure to set specific goals for this month's trip. "I don't think the president said anything particularly new or compelling here," said Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch/Asia. "To some extent, he's arguing a point that's already been made. The more important point is: What does he actually expect to achieve by going to China?"

"He's setting up a false dichotomy," said Gary Bauer, head of the conservative Family Research Council. "He's claiming that the debate is between a policy of engagement and a policy of isolationism, when in fact the debate is about what kind of engagement we're going to have."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Clinton ignored evidence that China has flouted attempts to curb weapons proliferation and continues to imprison thousands of dissidents. "If the president doesn't face up to the realities of his trip to China, to use his own words, he will be going on a fool's errand," she said.

Supporters of Clinton's approach welcomed his full-throated entry into the arena. Nicholas R. Lardy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a forthcoming book on China, called Clinton's talk a "very effective speech" that explained his reasoning in a "clear and coherent way."

"I wish he had given it sooner," Lardy said. "With the crescendo of criticism over the last few weeks, there's been so much adverse publicity it would have been good for the administration to get its message out earlier and more forcefully."