WASHINGTON (B)--Belligerent statements by China toward Taiwan and comments by U.S. Vice President Al Gore have put into question the passage of permanent "normal trade relations" (NTR) for China, key members of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee said Feb. 23.

China's entry into the World Trade Organization and passage by the Senate of permanent NTR are "not a foregone conclusion, as some may think," Finance Committee Chairman William Roth, R-DE, said.

U.S.-China trade relations are at "a worrisome moment," said ranking Democratic committee member Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, citing recent comments by Gore suggesting he would rewrite the WTO deal, and China's threat Feb. 21 to use force against Taiwan if territorial negotiations don't resume.

U.S. trade ambassador Charlene Barshefsky, testifying before the panel, sought to reassure members that the Clinton administration--apparently including Gore--is committed to the WTO agreement.

"I am here with the full support of the administration," she said.

But Barshefsky acknowledged that the administration would "work with" Congress on amendments if introduced by lawmakers--perhaps including labor standards.

Comments like that did not sit well with lawmakers.

"If efforts

are made to amend (the WTO agreement) along the lines the vice president has sought, it is going to sabotage the process," Roth warned Barshefsky.

Moynihan suggested the agreement had become a political pawn in Gore's presidential bid, and asked when the administration would send NTR legislation to Congress.

Barshefsky said the administration would like to see China in the WTO this year, but made no promise as to when the White House would send Congress a bill for permanent NTR, which China needs to join the world trade body.

Gore recently reportedly said he supported Beijing's access to the WTO, but if the NTR vote failed in Congress, he would seek additional labor and environmental concessions from China before moving forward with another vote.

Currently, the president and Congress review China's human rights policy annually and base normal trade relations status with Beijing on that review. Labor and human rights groups are opposed to granting China permanent NTR. Approval of the Senate Finance Committee will be an important first step for permanent trade relations.

Lawmakers also raised lingering concerns about China's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the hearing.

"You need to understand that there are some of us...who are very concerned about other matters," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-TN. China continues "to engage in massive proliferation" of weapons to countries such as Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, he said. Thompson also criticized the administration for "ignoring the fact that Chin a is threatening to invade Taiwan." Monday, Beijing warned that Taiwan's refusal to negotiate on unification could prompt it to resort to what it called "drastic measures including military force." China is apparently trying to dissuade voters from choosing pro-independence candidates in Taiwan's Mar 18 elections.

Barshefsky told the committee that the U.S. "rejects" the use of force by either China or Taiwan against the other country, and reminded senators the U.S. has imposed sanctions on China over weapons proliferation concerns.

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