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Gore off to Asia at ticklish time

This is the week that Vice President Al Gore planned to be striding confidently across the world stage. As it happens, Gore's stride promises to be more of a tiptoe.

The vice president left Saturday for seven days in Asia _ the highlight of his journey is a trip to China for talks with that nation's leaders _ at a time when domestic and international politics have merged in a perilous way for him.

Gore will arrive in Beijing as an ambassador for the Clinton administration's policy of "constructive engagement" with China at a time when that policy is facing an unusually skeptical audience at home.

Reports that the FBI is investigating whether the Chinese surreptitiously tried to influence the presidential and congressional elections by funneling campaign contributions through proxy donors _ allegations the Chinese have called "slanderous" _ have put Gore in a quandary.

His principal mission in Beijing is to create a climate of good feeling that will clear the way for a visit to the United States later this year by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and a visit by President Clinton to China the following year. If the visit is to be a success, administration officials said, Gore cannot offend his Chinese hosts.

On the other hand, Gore has his own sensitivities. Many liberals in his own Democratic Party and conservatives in the Republican Party offer a similar critique: that the administration has been too accommodating of China on human rights and other issues. In its zeal to cultivate a profitable U.S. commercial relationship with China, the argument goes, the administration has squandered its bargaining power with the leaders of the world's most populous nation.

Controversy over Gore's role in Democratic fund raising, including his recent acknowledgment that he made telephone solicitations from the White House and his attendance last year at a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple, make that subject more ticklish. Moreover, some critics are doubting the basic premise of the engagement policy: The administration has acknowledged that there are no demonstrable signs of progress on human rights in China, and the United States has a large and growing trade deficit with China.

"I think Gore is going at a particularly unpropitious moment," said Nicholas Lardy, who studies China at the Brookings Institution and who generally supports the administration's engagement policy. The various controversies "constrain his actions, if not explicitly, at least implicitly."

In an interview, Gore said it is a good time to go to China. "I think it is a more propitious time than in the past because both our countries are clearly signaling to the other that we want to move forward in the relationship."

The past week showed Gore's team tap-dancing on the narrow strip between offending the Chinese and offending U.S. domestic opinion. On Wednesday, a senior administration official said the vice president did not intend to raise concerns about Chinese influence-buying in his Beijing talks. The furthest Gore planned to go, the official said, would be to respond if the Chinese themselves raised the subject.

The next day, the official line changed. Gore would indeed raise the contributions issue in his meeting, officials said, as part of a broader review of the outstanding issues in the relationship between the two countries.

After a stop in Tokyo today, Gore heads to Beijing, where he will take a side trip to China's Great Wall. Also on the itinerary in China are stops in Xian and Shanghai. From there Gore will fly to South Korea.