- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 12, 2000

The conventional wisdom has it that the United States Senate once regarded as the World's Greatest Deliberative Body will wrap up action this week on legislation granting permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to the People's Republic of China. If it does so without amending that bill in one or more important ways, it will seriously diminish its claim to deliberativeness, to say nothing of that to greatness.

It is not as if senators won't be given a chance to amend the PNTR bill. A number of amendments enjoying important bipartisan support are to be offered. These include as many as 10 separate items designed to showcase and put senators on record concerning China's appalling record on human rights, religious freedom and labor and business practices. These will be offered by the oddest of political bedfellows, Sens. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, and Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat.

Unfortunately, a majority of senators may buy the Clinton-Gore defacto policy, and the generally unacknowledged predilections of the rest of the China Lobby: How Beijing conducts its domestic matters is, as the communists like to say, an internal affair. It shows just how submissive is the state to which the PRC has reduced the toadies in America's business community that it will not even support criticism of Chinese activities that unfairly deprive U.S. companies of their profits and/or proprietary technology and know-how.

To be sure, some senators may still pretend the preponderance of the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding that these setbacks are minor and temporary. They may salve their guilty consciences by hiding behind the argument that, in the long run, trade and other forms of engagement on Beijing's terms will inexorably transform the communist system. This is cold comfort since, as John Maynard Keynes memorably noted in 1923, in the long-run we are all dead.

The real trouble is that our enriching the Chinese with such engagement stands to make them both richer and more dangerous in the near to medium term. This is true, not least, because Beijing fully appreciates it needs to increase its gross domestic product if it is to afford the massive military modernization plan upon which it has embarked.

Even if the Senate is prepared to be seen as a paper tiger on China's internal repression and weapons build-up, however, one might expect it will draw the line at a more immediate national security problem: Surely, senators will refuse, in effect, to endorse the Clinton-Gore administration's studied indifference to Beijing's ongoing sales of missiles and weapons of mass destruction technology to the world's rogue states?

The upper body will be given an opportunity to do so thanks to another amendment to be offered by Sens. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and one of its leading Democratic members, Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. The Thompson-Torricelli bill would make reporting requirements about Chinese proliferation activities more exacting and less easily fudged (in President Clinton's inimitable turn of phrase). It would also create in law a series of penalties that can be meted out by the president if such behavior continues into the future, as it has to date.

The China Lobby is reputedly terrified of this amendment, fearful it might just pass. Having failed to dissuade its authors from offering their legislation, having denied them the opportunity to get clean up or down votes on its merits and finding every substantive compromise offered by Messrs. Thompson and Torricelli to be unsatisfactory, the friends of China are falling back to a last-ditch, pathetic argument for a No vote on this amendment:

If the PNTR bill is amended in any way, it will have to go to a conference committee with members of the House of Representatives to reconcile differences. That, in turn, would likely send the product back to the House. If the House has to vote on PNTR again in the remaining days of this session, passage simply cannot be assured. The bill may even have to await action in the next session, where its prospects could be even more troubled.

Hence, senators are being told, in effect, that they cannot deliberate. Or, put differently, they can deliberate only to the extent that their deliberations are deliberately ineffectual. Only a clean PNTR bill that is, one that perfectly tracks with whatever the House settled for will be acceptable. Senators who generally take pride (sometimes excessively so) in their institution and its role should be affronted by this take-it-or-leave-it diktat.

Such a state of affairs is all the more outrageous insofar as the Senate would be doing not only the United States but the World Trade Organization a huge favor if it bought additional time. It turns out (no surprise) that China is now balking at giving the WTO the kinds of commitments it had made to the United States and the European Union to become eligible for membership.

The Congress should not buy a pig in a poke; waiting until the WTO negotiations are complete would permit more informed decisions to be made about whether it really is a good idea to enrich China even if its proliferation, and human rights and other abuses are going to continue apace to say nothing of the fact that, by so doing, the United States will be underwriting the PRC's massive military build-up.

It can only be hoped that when the merits of the case for amending PNTR are so clear on substantive, strategic and technical grounds and when they happen to coincide with the responsibilities and prerogatives that senators freely assumed upon seeking election and taking the oath of office, that the World's Greatest Deliberative Body will once again prove itself worthy of that distinction.



Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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