THE Clinton administration's cautious approach to economic sanctions against China for alleged violations of international treaties shows a wisdom it has often lacked in the past.
Although the precise purpose of China's reported sales to Pakistan of uranium enrichment technology is unclear, it is widely considered in the United States to be an infringement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Should the Secretary of State decide there has been violation, US law requires the President to act. The New York Times has reported that the Administration is considering punishing Beijing and seeking sanctions which could hurt China without squeezing American companies which do business there. But, for the moment, the US Government's official position remains that it has no grounds for action until a violation is confirmed.
This position may be hard to maintain under election-year pressure. But Mr Clinton and his advisers have learned that sanctions are a two-edged weapon. It may be technically possible (although very difficult in practice) to find sanctions which do not hurt American business directly. But the inevitable Chinese retaliation will hurt US companies.
Any government which imposes sanctions without first ensuring a clear national understanding of the risks involved, and without explaining the odds against forcing a change in China's policies, will soon find itself facing political opposition at home.
That is not to excuse China. Morally and legally, helping Pakistan produce nuclear weapons would be indefensible. But unless there is hard evidence that China is doing so - and deliberately - any punishment should be meted out to Pakistan, not Beijing.
Governments - or even groups of governments - which hope to change China's ways on any issue of principle are in for a tough time. History has shown it to be virtually impervious to international public opinion - unless there is something for China at stake, like membership of the World Trade Organisation. Action without firm, publishable evidence of wrong-doing and without meticulous preparation to stiffen public resolve, would be politically suicidal at home.