Arms, Labor Concerns Threatens China Deal

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An election year was always going to be the worst possible time to get Congress to normalize trade relations with China. President Clinton's ability to pass legislation enabling Beijing's accession to the World Trade Organization looked increasingly iffy Wednesday, after it was reported that House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt plans later this week to — not entirely unexpectedly — announce his opposition to the measure. Not only does the opposition of Gephardt and the entire House Democratic leadership bode ill for White House prospects of corralling the necessary Democrats to pass the legislation, but President Clinton's decision Tuesday to defer the sale of sophisticated destroyers to Taiwan may also spark retaliation from conservative Republicans.

Rather than nixing the arms sale outright, the President used as cover a Pentagon assessment that found the Taiwanese didn't need the advanced Aegis destroyers, and ordered a detailed study of Taiwan's defensive needs. But plainly, if Beijing threatens to go to war simply on the basis of election rhetoric by Taiwanese politicians, then supplying the island with advanced military equipment would be taken by the mainland as a major provocation — and that's a prospect that would weigh heavily on the mind of any U.S. president. Still, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms lashed out at the decision as appeasement of Beijing, and the Taiwan arms issue may yet dovetail with the labor and human rights concerns of the House Democratic leadership to scupper the trade deal for this year.

Whatever pressure the President may bring to bear on House Democrats will more than likely be outweighed by concern, going into an election, to keep organized labor enthused about the Democratic party's prospects for winning back the House. The AFL-CIO is solidly against a China trade deal on the grounds that it has insufficient safeguards for human rights and labor standards, without which the unions fear that more manufacturing jobs will depart these shores for China's cheaper labor market. Thus the revival of the coalition between pro-labor Democrats and conservative Republicans that fought NAFTA. Of course Vice President Gore took the lead in facing that one down, although his own electoral concerns (and AFL-CIO endorsement) may keep him far from the front line this time. And even though the administration won on NAFTA, the White House will also remember that Representative Gephardt played a leading role in marshaling the troops to strip President Clinton of his fast-track trade negotiating powers.