WASHINGTON — GEORGE BUSH is paying a price at home for the chance of holding open China's door to the world. He is pursuing the relationship like an old China hand, say China watchers here, keenly aware of how dangerous China can be if it keeps slipping toward its old isolation and hostility.
But his China policy is becoming more politically contentious in Washington, where many are morally uncomfortable with sending friendly signals to the unrepentant Chinese.
The surprise visit to Beijing by top Bush aides this weekend was only the latest and most symbolic of a series of Bush moves to ease relations with the Chinese since the deadly crackdown in Tiananmen Square last June.
By Monday, leading senators were in the Capitol Hill press galleries calling it a ``kowtow'' to Chinese leaders who are still aggressively pursuing a crackdown on democracy in China.
But Bush could also cite a response to the visit: a promise from the Chinese not to sell any missiles to Middle Eastern countries.
National security adviser Brent Scowcroft had brought up the issue early in his talks in Beijing, Mr. Bush said Monday. ``I think the fact that it was raised and then responded to with this rapidity is a good sign,'' he said.
It is one of the first good signs of Chinese responsiveness since June. Since then, China's government has been consolidating the power of hard-liners opposed to liberalization and reform. The shift away from central planning has been reversed. Political and economic power has been centralized. The crackdown on democratic activists has continued.
The US response to the crackdown was to cut off all high-level official exchanges and sales of military equipment, and to allow Chinese students to overstay their US visas rather than go back to possible retribution. The US also used its influence to freeze World Bank loans to China.
But the Bush administration has been less than draconian in upholding these measures.
It allowed a Boeing aircraft sale to China even though some navigation equipment in the deal has military uses. It vetoed a bill to extend the student visas on the grounds that the president already had such authority, but critics suspected it was concern over offending the Chinese.
Secretary of State James Baker III first broke the ban on high-level exchanges in July when he met in Paris with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen. The visit this weekend by General Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger was the second exception made.
The Chinese seemed to dictate the terms of this meeting. At their request, it was not announced publicly until the emissaries landed in Beijing. Then followed extensive media coverage of them dining with top Chinese leaders and offering them toasts.
``The message to their people - and we helped them put it across - was that they can do whatever they want and they don't need the support of their people at home or abroad,'' says Anthony Kane, director of the China Council of the Asia Society.
This kind of signal is what Democratic senators such as George Mitchell of Maine, Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island expressed concern about this week.
Few argue, however, with the underlying logic of the Scowcroft trip - to open communication with the Chinese about world politics at a time of instability.
``The whole system in Asia is going to change strategically, economically, and is going to recede from them, leave them behind,'' says Tom Robinson, director of China Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Yet China has the power to create serious regional instability in parts of Asia, he adds, such as through support of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Cambodia.
``China borders some of the world's genuine flashpoints,'' says Andrew Brick, a China scholar at the Heritage Foundation. ``The US has to be talking to China, at least.''