TAKING BOTH SIDES

TAKING BOTH SIDES

he political-campaign wave has rolled on, and the rhetorical shot and shell is already flying in other directions. The public may already be forgetting Vice President Al Gore's embarrassing efforts to plant himself firmly on both of the opposing sides of the China trade issue as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination. No doubt Gore hopes the affair is soon forgotten.

It shouldn't be. The ruckus is not only a reminder to voters to be wary of political promises, although it certainly is that. But it also highlights the intense political pressures on the approval of the Clinton administration's agreement with Beijing on China's accession to the World Trade Organization.And it underscores the need for the administration and pro-trade forces on Capitol Hill to move carefully but quickly to win early approval of the accord. The longer that is put off, the more difficult the issue will become.

The latest China wrangle began last week when Vice President Gore met privately with leaders of the AFL-CIO, which has already endorsed him. The AFL-CIO is unequivocal in its opposition to Clinton's trade agreement with China; they say rejection of the accord is the centerpiece of their campaign to secure workers' rights in the global economy.

Participants said the vice president had assured them that he could bargain a better, more rigorous trade agreement with Beijing - and would, should Clinton's agreement fail to win approval. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told USA Today that Gore declared he wouldn't sign any trade agreements that failed to address labor standards and environmental protections.

The Clinton administration fumed, but business leaders, who are trying to mount a strong campaign in support of the accord, erupted outright. The National Association of Manufacturers said that, if the reports were true, Gore had ''seriously undermined one of the most important policy initiatives of his own administration.'' It demanded that Gore clarify his position.

Gore did - to a lawyerly point. He sent NAM a one-page letter repeating his support of the China agreement, acknowledging that it would provide ''meaningful benefits for American workers and companies by expanding and opening the Chinese market.'' He said Congress should approve, and do so this year.

However, the vice president didn't retreat too far. Future trade negotiations should include ''labor and environmental components,'' Gore wrote. And, he added, ''in the future I will also insist on the authority to enforce workers' rights and environmental protections in those agreements.''

Such phraseology is anathema to the Third World, which is ostensibly the object of labor's concern. It translates there as ''wealthy-nation protectionism.'' And in fact it was a major factor in sinking the WTO's summit meeting in Seattle three months ago.

But it is popular with Western labor and environmental leaders. And it can appeal to ordinary Western voters who fear and distrust the change that is sweeping the world's economy, even as it brings good times to many of them.

The bottom line about trade, however, is that it is a powerful economic engine for all. As world trade has ballooned over the last half-century, world output has quadrupled and per-capita world income has doubled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Developing countries have doubled their exports in the last 30 years alone.

And trade has been an integral part of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history - an expansion that may not have affected every sector equally, but that has improved American life overall.

Consider China. WTO membership won't make a dramatic or immediate difference in China's domestic or international politics. But expanded trade will improve life in China - and, more importantly, will increase China's everyday contacts with the West and Westerners, broadening the Chinese people's outlook and, ultimately, expectations.

And the long-bargained agreement between Washington and Beijing paving the way for China's accession to the WTO provides more for American businesses, farmers and workers than it does for their Chinese counterparts; America's markets are already largely open. But for the United States to realize any gains, it must grant China permanent normal-trade-relations status.

It would be a pity if short-sighted political concerns were to derail the United States from such a positive course. But the longer the process takes, the more likely that becomes. Even well-intentioned maneuvers by trade supporters - various side agreements proposed in Congress to monitor China's actions, for example, in return for a yes vote on the trade-status question - are complicating the picture in the short-term and could hamstring progress in the longer term.

The China agreement is a solid step forward. Vice President Gore's effort to appease both sides on the issue amount to floundering. Perhaps the embarrassing spectacle of the latter can help advance the former by putting a clear spotlight on the situation. Certainly it should spur trade supporters to greater efforts.