Political jury delays verdict

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 November, 1999, 12:00am

In the absence of all the facts, the political jury is still out across Washington on Monday's historic trade accord between the United States and China.

Fierce anti-China critic and Senate majority leader Trent Lott, a potential hanging judge to some, was reserving judgment until Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky's return to the US capital.

'While China's admission to the World Trade Organisation could provide opportunities for US businesses, there remain significant questions about whether an agreement with China can be enforced fully and fairly and about the effect it could have on religious freedoms, human rights and our national security,' Senator Lott said.

The Republican leader is likely to prove crucial in the Clinton administration bid to ensure that Congress backs the deal by awarding China permanent Normal Trading Relations status.

Another outspoken Republican, Ben Gilman, chairman of the House of Representative International Relations Committee, also demanded more details.

'This agreement must protect the rule of law and promote economic and political liberalisation uniformly throughout China,' he said.

Two other Republican congressmen who will have a crucial say on the deal, Bill Archer and Phil Crane of the Ways and Means Committee, both said they were keen to get things moving if the deal protected American interests, as Ms Barshefsky has claimed.

Congress is due to go into Christmas recess this week and is expected to start seriously debating the deal on its return in January.

Most insiders expect a vote in March or April, a timetable that matches the heavy bureaucratic work still ahead in both Beijing and the WTO headquarters in Geneva to prepare for China's entry to the body which sets the rules for world trade.

The administration is gearing up for a fight, given the level of mistrust between Capitol Hill and the White House, but many officials are quietly confident the deal will survive.

'We expected a lot worse than what we have seen so far,' a Defence Department official said.

'I think people realise it really is win-win. This will bring unprecedented change to China in line with American interests.' Douglas Paal, president of the Asia-Pacific Policy Centre, echoed the view, saying there might be some harsh words but ultimately trade with China had become a 'settled issue' after years of annual debate.

Other analysts believe President Bill Clinton has too much of his tattered foreign policy legacy hanging on the agreement to see it upset by Congress.