Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip to China, meant to prepare for Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's April visit to the United States, came at a rocky moment in bilateral ties.
China's leaders seem to be doing their best to complicate relations. They have rounded up members of a fledgling opposition political party and meted out 11-to-13 year jail sentences. They continue high-tech espionage; US Customs last week arrested another Chinese national trying to buy missile-guidance components. Beijing is deploying missiles opposite Taiwan in an attempt to intimidate the island's leaders.
The Beijing leadership is angered by US cancellation of a satellite sale, unable apparently to see the connection between its spying and the American reaction. China is also upset by Taiwan's diplomatic efforts, recently vetoing extension of the United Nations peacekeeping action in Macedonia in its pique over Skopje's establishment of relations with Taipei.
Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jaixuan dismisses US concern about Chinese human rights violations as interference in his country's internal affairs by what he calls a handful of "anti-China elements" in the US.
He ought to know better. Those "elements" include the US Congress, which is not known for kowtowing to dictators. In the present state of affairs, it's hard to imagine that Congress won't at least try to impose its own version of relations, one certain to be less friendly than the administration's.
Yet legislators should step carefully. For all China's flaws, there are solid reasons to engage. At the lowest levels of Chinese society, village democracy and market economics continue to drive change that is steadily eroding Communist centralism. China's cooperation is needed to help keep a dangerous and desperate North Korean regime in check. The well-being of American businesses and workers precludes cutting the US off from the largest market on earth.
A major component of Ms. Albright's talks concerns China's desire to join the World Trade Organization. China wants to join as a third-world nation on easier terms. Western countries rightly oppose that, saying China is too large and developed. The US, which had a $57 billion trade deficit with Beijing last year, demands a lowering of trade barriers.
Work towards bringing China on board should continue. But membership should wait until Beijing shows it's ready to play by the rules.