A divided Bush administration could make its first major decision on China this week - whether to push a U.N. resolution faulting China's human rights record - activists and congressional sources said on Tuesday.
The annual question of such a resolution has traditionally been a source of extreme irritation between the United States and China.
How President George W. Bush decides to handle it this year will help set his administration's tone toward Beijing.
While the China resolution, which Washington usually supports during the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, has been the subject of debate in the new administration, there have been hints that Bush will go ahead with one.
In a recent interview on CNN's "Late Edition," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "What we do at that (U.N.) meeting will be consistent with our views of the importance of human rights."
"So I think you will not see any diminution of support for human rights in China. In fact, I think you'll see a renewed emphasis on it," she said.
In an effort to pre-empt the administration - and make clear the strength of domestic support for a tough stand on China - members of Congress introduced on Tuesday a resolution calling on Bush to "take the lead" in mounting an international condemnation of Beijing.
In a letter to Senate colleagues, Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Republican Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas said that since the last meeting of the U.N. commission, China's human rights record had deteriorated, a conclusion the State Department's annual human rights report later this month is also expected to reach.
Beijing has continued to crack down on "perceived" threats to the ruling Communist Party, increasing attacks on minority religious groups, destroying places of worship and imprisoning believers, the senators wrote.
China has also continued long-standing campaigns against pro-democracy activists and ethnic minority groups, they said.
Wellstone and Hutchinson recalled that during last year's debate in Congress on granting China permanent normal trade relations, meant to clear the way for its entry into the World Trade Organization, many lawmakers argued that granting that trade status in no way signified a diminished concern for human rights.
"We believe that now is the time to demonstrate this," the two senators said.
Human rights activists have launched their own campaign to pressure Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell into action.
"Abandoning this multilateral effort in the early days of the new Bush administration would send the wrong signal to the Chinese leadership, that human rights are not a key priority of the United States," seven groups w???ssional sources and human rights activists said they understood that Powell and other top officials would meet this week to decide on a recommendation to Bush on the resolution.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he was unaware of plans for such a meeting. "(The resolution issue) is still under consideration. It has not been decided, nor is there a firm timetable for a decision," he said.
COST OF DELAY
The longer a decision is delayed, the harder it would be for the administration to mount a credible international campaign to win passage of a U.N. resolution.
Sources said a U.S. official was in Europe last week, sampling allied opinion about a possible resolution.
Qian Qichen, China's most senior foreign policy official, is expected to come to Washington next month for talks with the new administration.
The Sino-American agenda also involves Taiwan, national missile defense, arms sales and trade - issues many experts consider more crucial to international security.
Washington has routinely sponsored a resolution condemning China's human rights record, except in 1998, when Beijing released some dissidents from prison and signed a human rights convention.
For most of the last 10 years, however, China has persuaded the U.N. commission to avoid a direct vote on the rights issue.
Although supporting a U.N. resolution would seem automatic for a U.S. government that endorses human rights as a basic tenet, the issue can be quite complicated.
In most recent years, even though the United States sponsored a U.N. resolution, it did little to muster the kind of international support needed to ensure adoption.
That is because many other countries, including most European allies, believe the exercise is counterproductive, angering China without changing its behavior.
Activists are worried that if the administration does not make an aggressive push to win passage of a U.N. resolution, the meager support for condemning China's human rights record could spell a public relations victory for Beijing.
Officials and experts agree that Beijing would probably refuse to resume a formal human rights dialogue with Washington if the administration backed a resolution of condemnation. But that dialogue has produced little so far.