AS the Clinton administration struggles with what may be its most vexing foreign-policy decision - whether to continue most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status to China - it is wedged in a conflict between United States economic interests and American democratic values.
``On China,'' says Jeffrey Garten, undersecretary of commerce for international trade, ``the economic goal of national-security policy confronts the moral goal of human rights.''
Washington's failure to force Beijing to end its abuse of political prisoners or cease its efforts to jam Voice of America radio has frustrated US policymakers who view diplomacy as an opportunity to push for democratic change in Communist China. They see MFN as a tool to prod an otherwise recalcitrant Beijing.
But to American business leaders eyeing markets there, this analysis is out of focus. China is the world's most populous country; over the next decade, its people will spend between $500 billion and $1 trillion on imported goods and services. (The stakes for the US economy, Page 9.)
By revoking MFN, Washington would slap tariffs on Chinese imports and deal a strong blow to bilateral trade just at a time when recession in Europe and market penetration problems in Japan make the Chinese outlet more attractive for US exporters.
But US business leaders complain that they are constrained by the State Department's push for trade sanctions, while European and Japanese competitors, whose governments see trade sanctions as acts of folly, win lucrative contracts.
Mr. Garten was in the Chinese capital this month lobbying on behalf of American firms now vying for assorted projects. A State Department official was also in Beijing at the same time threatening to revoke MFN if China failed to make marked improvements in human rights.