Clinton Lobs a Hail Mary Over China Trade Deal

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Talk about writing checks you can't cash.... President Clinton is rushing to finalize a trade agreement by the end of November to allow China entry into the World Trade Organization, according to Tuesday’s New York Times. But the fact that any deal would have to pass both houses of Congress has Beijing doubting whether Mr. Clinton can deliver, even if they do manage to strike a deal. And, of course, that's a big "if." The two sides were reportedly close to agreement when Premier Zhu Rongji visited Washington in April, but the fallout from the Chinese nuclear espionage allegations prompted President Clinton to back out — a decision, according to the Times, he now deeply regrets.

But President Clinton isn't the only player constrained by domestic political concerns — WTO membership has become a flash point in the epic struggle between Chinese hard-liners and reformists for control of the country's economy. The reformers, led by Premier Zhu, hope to use the strict open-market conditions attached to WTO membership as a crowbar with which to open up China's economy. But hard-liners, fearing the social unrest that rapid reforms may bring, are digging in their heels against some of the conditions demanded by the industrialized nations. Despite renewed negotiation efforts, the changing domestic political climate at both ends has rendered the deal almost signed in April beyond reach right now. So they're haggling once again over everything from textiles to telecommunications in search of a workable deal. But in light of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty debacle, the espionage allegations, the competitive concerns of U.S. industry and labor lobbies and the fact that an agreement would go to the Hill in an election year, the current negotiations are probably somewhat hypothetical.