Ronald Reagan has carefully sought to modify former views that set China's teeth on edge. He has also tried to assure Peking -- through the visit of vice-president-elect George Bush, for example -- that his administration will seek good relations with the People's Republic. Hence it is mystifying that a Reagan adviser should now have drawn such a strong verbal broadside from the official Chinese press. The President-elect has acted quickly to forestall further damage by sending a memorandum to 120 foreign policy advisers warning them they could not speak for him when traveling abroad.
He may need to do more, however, and that is to signal Peking that he is not altering course again.
The adviser in this instance. Georgetown University professor and former CIA deputy chief Ray Cline, was in Taiwan recently and there, according to reports, suggested that China should open itself to the outside world, declare a policy of nonforce in respect to Taiwan, and return to the norms of "civilized behavior." Not surprisingly, his remarks antagonized authorities in Peking, who proceeded to blast Dr. Cline for flagrantly interfering in China's internal affairs. Not an auspicious turn of events for the Reagan government-in-writing.
In fairness, it should be noted that Dr. Cline says his "private" mission to Asia was planned before the Reagan landslide. But it is only natural that, as a Reagan foreign policy adviser, his public statements would be scrupulously scanned in Peking and other Asian capitals for indications of how Mr. Reagan would approach matters once in office. On this occasion the Reagan transition team does seem to have slipped up. We trust Mr. Reagan is not hardening his position.
Not that Dr. Cline does not have worthwhile things to say. His warnings against "playing the China card" against the Soviet Union by building up the People's Republic militarily, for instance, deserve thoughtful consideration by the new administration. But the idea of upgrading US relations with Taiwan -- when the whole situation in Taiwan has worked out splendidly since the normalization of ties with Peking -- is needlessly asking for trouble.
The new US relationship with China does not mean Washington should bow to every Chinese request or should not act in its own national interest, even at Peking's displeasure. But it would be diplomatically shortsighted, indeed dangerous, to slight the importance of maintaining good ties with the most populous nation in the world, one bound to play a growing global role.
In this context, the Reagan memorandum comes none too soon.