The White House and the business community are pushing for an early vote in Congress on permanent normal-trade-relations status for the People's Republic of China. The timing could not be worse, if the aim is to maximize America's benefits from trade with China while minimizing the dangers.

China is not yet a member of the World Trade Organization. Until it is, the United States need not rewrite its trade laws. To do so would confer a gift on the Beijing regime it does not deserve.The Clinton administration wants a vote on permanent NTR by the end of May because summer will bring political problems from intensifying election campaigns.

The pro-China lobby knows that the U.S. public opposes closer ties with Beijing until it reforms its human rights practices and quits threatening war.

The lobby fears a political backlash if China continues to act aggressively through the summer, especially following the election of pro-independence presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan. This could affect support for the trade deal in both parties, as well as boosting the Reform Party impact of Pat Buchanan, who rails against the appeasement of China at every turn.

Yet this is exactly why congressional action now should be avoided. Once permanent NTR is granted, Congress will give up its only leverage in the WTO accession process.

Under business pressure, the Republican leadership in both the House and Senate seem inclined to move ahead on the vote. However, a blue-ribbon panel of Republican foreign-policy experts has cautioned against this.

The Congressional Policy Advisory Board has called attention to the risk that granting permanent NTR ''in close proximity to the PRC's threats against both Taiwan and the United States might be misinterpreted by Beijing as an indication that the United States did not oppose the PRC's policies and actions towards Taiwan.'' This has become even more important since the Taiwan election.

The policy advisory board includes Caspar Weinberger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Donald Rumsfeld and a host of other officials from the Nixon, Bush and Reagan administrations, and from the leading conservative think tanks.

The board also unanimously recommended that permanent NTR not be voted on until China and the European Union reach a market-access agreement, and the final WTO accession protocol is concluded.

In other words, until China has done what it needs to do to become a WTO member, it should not treated as if it is one.

Many important issues - such as whether China comes into the WTO as a developed or underdeveloped country - will not be settled until the final protocol. How these issues are resolved will determine which set of rules and timetables China must follow to open its markets.

The negotiating process is far from over, and Congress should not give up its role prematurely.

If permanent NTR is not voted by June, the normal process of granting annual NTR will come into play. This would be a good thing.

If China has not taken further aggressive actions against its neighbors on the Pacific Rim, it will probably win another year of NTR. But there would be another long and searching debate in the House of Representatives over China policy, setting out markers for Beijing's acceptable behavior in terms of regional peace and economic reform.

This would serve both to deter reckless action by Beijing against Taiwan's new government and to promote China's acceptance of a more commercially viable WTO accession protocol.

One would think American business would want to keep leverage on Beijing until the deal in Geneva was truly done. This assumes the business lobby is really focused on opening China's mythical ''vast market'' to American exports. There is reason, however, to doubt this.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce talks of how ''China's vast infrastructure needs will mean tremendous business opportunities for American companies in the power generation, telecommunications, petroleum and other industries.''

The Business Roundtable just put out a report on ''Corporate Responsibility in China'' that details how companies are training Chinese workers, managers and engineers to run factories in China, not in America.

What emerges is a vision of corporations wanting to partner with Beijing in the building of China's industrial base. Thus, the focus on permanent NTR is to keep the U.S. market open to exports from China, not to China. This is not in America's interest, as it empowers a potentially hostile rival in Asia with U.S. technology and capital.

Congress should not give up its oversight role until it can actually see which way things are going in China - and that will not be for some time.