Swirling events thrust the world's richest nation closer to the world's most populous nation. Just over a year ago, Time magazine (Dec. 25, 1978) proclaimed "Carter stunts the world" by unexpectedly ending a 30-year US-China estrangement. He established normal relations a week later.
A lot has happened since then, but some of the things supposed to happen, have not.
Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping (then spelled Teng Hsiao-ping) has traveled across the United States and worn a cowboy hat.
America has downgraded its relations with Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan, but Barry Goldwater's charge that Mr. Carter had committed "one of the most cowardly" presidential acts in history, an act that would destroy an ally, has not been borne out. Legally, the US Supreme Court ruled the President had the right to make the new connection.
What has not happened, though, is the quick modernization of China. Nobody thought there would be industrialization overnight, but expectations were exaggerated, and now are disabused.
Suddenly comes a new critical period: Harold Brown, US secretary of defense, is in Peking just as a Soviet-American crisis develops, a visit arranged long before. When Vice- Premier Deng visited the United States he denounced "hegemonism," meaning the Soviets. In Peking, Mr. Brown now promises cooperation with China on questions of international security when strategic interests are threatened.Statesmen catch their breath. World forces seem to be pushing the two countries together in a new thrust.
US Vice-President Walter Mondale told China last summer in PEking: "Any nation which seeks to weaken or isolate you in world affairs assumes a stance counter to American interest."
Vice-Premier Deng in America last year warned against the Soviets, with the code word "hegemonism." Now Secretary Brown in Peking specifically attacks the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and his language is blunter.
President Carter is not yet ready to "play the China card" -- make full alliance with Peking with sale of sophisticated weapons. The Carter policy of sanctions does not make a break with Moscow irrevocable.
China's modernization has struck a snag -- lack of ability to pay for and scarcity of credit to finance advanced technology.
But China must sell abroad to buy abroad. It is constrained by global inflation and threatening recession. Secretary Brown arrives in Peking when China wants first-class military hardware, planes like F-15s and F-16s, but it is pressed to pay for ambitious modernization it has already attempted.
High government officials here see no reason why closer US-China accomodation cannot be worked out between two of the three countries that make the world's power "triangle."
Sophisticated US technology that Mr. Carter has banned for the Soviets, as part of his Afghan sanctions, might go tantatizingly to China. But who will underwrite the credits for the purchases? China needs capital more than it need tanks. There are other factors:
* China reportedly has been feeling out with the Soviets whether relations can be thawed a bit. The success of the maneuver is not known.
* China's relations to the Vietnam war are being explored by Secretary Brown. Does Peking intend to enlarge its role? Vietnamese troops have occupied Cambodia and are fighting guerrilla forces of a Chinese-allied Cambodia government.
China has a single-minded concern, almost an obsession, with the polices and intentions of the Soviet Union that is likened to the US of 20 ago.