Friday, May 14, 1999

Prueher’s challenge as
envoy to China

Bullet The issue: Sino-American relations are at their lowest ebb in 10 years with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
Bullet Our view: Adm. Joseph W. Prueher's experience as commander-in-chief Pacific was valuable preparation for his difficult new job.

FROM Camp Smith on Halawa Heights to Beijing: Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, the former commander-in-chief Pacific, is President Clinton's choice as ambassador to China. Obviously this is no sinecure. Sino-American relations are at their lowest ebb since the Tiananmen Square massacre 10 years ago.

As the joint-services Pacific commander, Prueher, who retired May 1, had to deal with the Chinese military and become fully acquainted with China's policies and problems. His appointment is a reflection of the continuing importance of CinCPAC and the officers who are entrusted with that command in this post-Cold War era.

Protests over the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade seem to be easing in Beijing, but Prueher will encounter a still-delicate situation when he assumes his post. (His confirmation by the Senate seems assured.) The Clinton administration's honeymoon with the Chinese Communists ended abruptly with the embassy bombing. That was a colossal blunder; the Chinese accusation that it was deliberate was preposterous.

What Jiang Zemin's regime seems to be doing by inciting protests at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and other American outposts in China is exacting revenge for the wave of unfavorable publicity China has been receiving in the American news media.

Disclosures of nuclear espionage and illegal funneling of money to the 1996 Clinton election campaign, on top of earlier criticism of China's human rights abuses, have taken the shine off Sino-American relations. The bombing gave Beijing an opportunity to strike back and play the aggrieved party.

Jiang's charge that the United States was using its economic and technological superiority to expand its influence, pursue "power politics and wantonly interfere in the internal affairs of other countries" revealed Beijing's real aim -- not to protest a blunder but to lash out at its American critics.

No one should be deceived by this cynical propaganda exercise. Nor should Washington be impressed by China's threat to veto a Kosovo peace agreement in the U.N. Security Council. NATO does not need U.N.'s approval for any such accord.

After venting their wrath, the Chinese can be expected to resume doing business with the United States because it is in their interest to do so.

They enjoy a huge trade imbalance with this country and are eager for increased U.S. investments and technology. They would hardly welcome a cut-off in trade, investment or sales of new technology.

However, the "strategic partnership" that the Clinton administration hoped for is dead. China is emerging as a challenger to the United States as the dominant power in East Asia. It will take some nimble diplomacy to keep this difficult relationship from collapsing. Admiral Prueher will have his hands full.

Gun show checks

Bullet The issue: Whether to require background checks for firearm sales at gun shows
Bullet Our view: Checks should be require for all sales, including those at gun shows.

EVEN in the aftermath of the carnage at Columbine High School in the Denver suburbs, the National Rifle Association was able to exert enough muscle in the U.S. Senate to stave off an effort to close a big loophole in gun-control laws.

But the gun lobby went too far and some supporters backtracked in embarrassment. Senate leaders were forced to reverse course and support a requirement of background checks for all firearms sales at gun shows, where the two juvenile offenders at Littleton are believed to have acquired some of their weapons.

Because of the Colorado massacre, gun-control advocates went into this week's session with confidence that a bill to combat juvenile crime that had been languishing for 18 months could be used as a vehicle for firearms legislation. They were jolted when the Senate, by a 51-47 vote, rejected an amendment to expand federal criminal background checks to include buyers at gun shows, closing a loophole that has existed since checks were required of commercial gun shops.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho and a member of the NRA's board of directors, instead won passage, by a 53-45 vote, of a proposal for voluntary background checks at gun shows. Craig acknowledged that 40 percent of sales at gun shows are in so-called private sales, although 98 percent of gun shows' vendors are licensed dealers who are required to subject their customers to background checks.

The loophole allowing such private sales is significant; the sellers generally don't own gun shops but operate out of their homes, escaping federal scrutiny.

After loud complaints from President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and a half-dozen members of his own party, Craig decided to "correct" the legislation to require 24-hour background checks for all transfers of firearms at gun shows. The NRA grudgingly went along with the change, which gained Senate approval today by a single vote, although Clinton and and Senate Democrats complained that it still contained loopholes.

The NRA maintains its influence in Congress, but this time its push to protect a dangerous loophole backfired at a time when the Littleton tragedy was still fresh in the public consciousness. The gun lobby may be straying too far from mainstream public opinion to maintain its clout.

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John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

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