Trade deal faces hot reception in Congress

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 January, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 January, 2000, 12:00am

Mainland officials and pro-China business lobbyists are bracing for tough weeks ahead as the Republican-led US Congress resumes today with the historic Sino-US trade pact expected to dominate backroom debate.

If the pact is voted down, American businessmen will be the big losers as it could see the mainland joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with the benefits applying to all other members but the United States.

Factions in both the Republican and Democratic parties hold concerns over granting Beijing permanent normal trading status - the key part of the WTO deal for Beijing.

Congressional aides warn of various possible drives to tie a new version of the controversial Taiwan Security Enhancement Act or human rights legislation to any vote on trading status, formerly known as Most Favoured Nation.

Several Senate and congressional committees plan potentially volatile hearings on China while labour and human rights groups are warning of vocal opposition.

Already some congressmen are pushing for guarantees of intensified monitoring of China's compliance with the pact. Others are considering a special human rights commission to make up for the disappearance of the annual debate on China that its trade status offered.

The debates over trading status had become increasingly wide-ranging and embarrassing for Beijing - a key factor in its demand that its trading status be made permanent.

The Clinton administration, meanwhile, will be pushing for an early vote, fearing the deal could become ensnared in a rapidly intensifying presidential election campaign.

'The next few weeks are going to give us an early indication as to how tough and confusing a fight this is going to be,' said a veteran business lobbyist involved in a US$10 million (HK$77.6 million) effort by corporate America to curry support for the market-opening deal.

'We are going to see all manner of opponents coming out of the woodwork. We hope China understands that things are going to get a lot rougher before they see a result.' Mainland envoys said privately they were aware things could get 'ugly' in Washington and said they would be monitoring developments.

Increased military ties with Taiwan would be viewed 'highly negatively', they warned.

President Bill Clinton has already mobilised some of his most influential cabinet members for a major drive to get the deal through.

He is expected further address issues surrounding China during his last annual State of the Union address this week.

Getting China into the WTO is building as his key foreign policy initiative for the year, analysts say.

In what is already being called the 'Clinton two-step', his administration is promising a tough line on human rights abuses during United Nations meetings in Geneva in March in a bid to satisfy critics in his party.

Several prominent Washington analysts believe, overall, that a positive vote is a fait accompli.

The problems loom instead with what side-deals Mr Clinton will have to make in the interim.