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Clinton's China policy under fire

As president meets with Chinese premier today, critics say US needs toget tough.

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Only nine months ago, President Clinton was in China lauding the "vision" and "competence" of Chinese leaders and exuding confidence in a "good positive partnership" with Beijing.

China since then has dashed the president's high hopes on several fronts. Beijing has waged a harsh crackdown on dissidents. It has threatened Taiwan with a missile buildup. Ongoing Chinese espionage targeting US military secrets is compromising American security, officials say. And most recently, Beijing has attacked the US-led NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia as a "barbarity."

As a result, Mr. Clinton greets Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in Washington today amid wide-ranging criticism that his China policy - aimed at building a "constructive strategic partnership" with Beijing - is somewhat fawning and unrealistic. "[To] speak in overly flowery terms as though we were partners or allies is way out of bounds," says Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

A new alternative

To be sure, opponents from both ends of the political spectrum have for years castigated the Clinton administration for laxity and appeasement towards Beijing's Communist regime. Yet now, a mainstream alternative to the Clinton policy is emerging in Congress and policymaking circles - one that argues that the US should continue to engage China, but on much tougher terms.

This approach to engagement asserts that the Clinton team has advanced diplomatic relations and large corporate interests in China at the expense of other core interests such as national security and human rights.

Supporters of tougher engagement include both Republicans and Democrats. "We need a constructive and continued dialogue," says Rep. Christopher Cox (R) of California, "but the terms of engagement are all-important. The Clinton policy is excessively China-centric."

Representative Cox chairs the House Select Committee investigating US security concerns with China. The committee is expected to release its declassified report outlining Chinese threats to US security as early as later this month.

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