After a period of uncertainty at the start of the Reagan administration, Washington and Peking have decided to strengthen their "important strategic relationship," according to senior government officials here.
No dramatic decisions are likely soon, nor is anything approaching an alliance. But in the face of the threat of Soviet expansionism, Washington and Peking seem to have decided that strengthening their relations -- in fields from commerce and culture to science and military technology -- is to their mutual advantage.
"I strongly believe," said former President Gerald Ford during his recent visit here, "that this relationship [between China and the United States] should not only be retained but expanded in depth and breadth."
A new American ambassador to Peking is expected to be announced within a matter of weeks. No promises have been made for high-level visits, but Premier Zhao Ziyang will likely visit the United States before the end of the year, to be followed by a Reagan visit to China in 1982.
The new warmth in Sino-American relations has been made possible by an important decision on the part of the Reagan administration, according to diplomatic sources. That decision is to defer contentious issues such as selling arms to Taiwan or giving greater "officiality" to US-Taiwan relations. Taiwan remains a submerged rock in Washington's relations with Peking. The Chinese leadership has not forgotten Mr. Reagan's remarks during the election campaign indicating a desire to upgrade ties with Taiwan.
But the unusual warmth shown by President Reagan and his top foreign policy advisers when he recently invited Chinese Ambassador Chai Zemin to the White House, plus the cordiality surrounding former President Ford's talks here with Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping and Premier Zhao, seem to have convinced the Chinese leadership that the primary consideration in the new administration's China policy is the global perspective, not Taiwan. The Chinese know that the administration has not yet formulated the specifics of its China policy, including such sensitive questions as whether to sell arms to China, and, if so, what arms.
But senior government officials here say they consider it "very significant" that the Reagan administration has recognized the strategic importance of Sino-American relations. They take this as a sign of the general orientation of the new administration and are willing to wait for the specifics to be spelled out over a period of time.
At the same time, there is no hint of compromise on the Chinese position regarding Taiwan. This position remains what it was when Mr. Deng spoke to the US Congress during his visit to Washington two years ago -- that Peking will strive for the peaceful liberation of Taiwan but cannot exclude other means.
Tension in the Taiwan Strait is lower than at any previous time since the establishment of the People's Republic. Peking's military budget this year is lower than it was the previous year. But if Peking were to explicitly renounce the threat of force it would lose any leverage it might hope to exert to bring the Taiwanese to the negotiating table, in the view of senior Chinese officials. The Chinese know that for their promises of autonomy and undiminished social and living standards to become credible to the Taiwanese, their own standards of living must begin to approach those of Taiwan. This is, therefore, a long-term project. If it will take more than a life-time for all China to reach Taiwan's living standards, a coastal province like Fujian might be able to achieve it in a generation or so.
If peace continues, in the meantime, why is there need for Taiwan continually to keep upgrading its fighter planes or its weaponry? American or any other arms sales to Taiwan will only delay the goal of peaceful reunification, in Peking's view, and revive tensions that have been allowed to subside. So strongly do senior Chinese officials feel on this point that they say they would not even accept American arms sales to China, if such sales were conditioned on Chinese acceptance of arms sales to Taiwan.
As the Reagan administration starts putting together the specifics of its China policy, this warning from Peki ng rings in its ears.