As he sets out on his trip to Asia, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. has plenty of work to do. The Chinese in Peking appear to be uncertain of their evolving relationship with the United States. The Chinese in Taiwan appear to be nervous about that relationship evolving too far.
Secretary Haig seems to be seeking a finely tuned balance that will advance the strategically important relationship with Peking while taking into account Republican warmth toward Taiwan. But the election campaign statements of President Reagan, who suggested that the US favor Taiwan a bit more by ending its practice of dealing with the island on an "unofficial" basis, now seem to be forgotten. If anything, the Reagan "tilt" at the moment seems to favor Peking.
A senior official revealed a few days prior to Haig's departure for Peking that the Reagan administration had decided to lift restrictions against the sale of certain types of military equipment to China. The gesture was considered at the least symbolically significant. It was still not clear, however, what it would mean in practical terms.
A considerable number of "nonlethal" military items, such as radar, unarmed helicopters, transport planes, and communications equipment were made available to the Chinese under the Carter administration, but the Chinese apparently decided not to buy. The Peking government is giving its plans for economic modernization higher priority than the modernization of its relatively antiquated military forces. China also is suffering from a shortage of foreign exchange with which to buy expensive military equipment.
While not appearing to be overly eager to obtain US equipment of their own, the leaders in Peking do appear to be extremely concerned that Taiwan may acquire more sophisticated weapons from the new administration in Washington.
As the US interprets its agreements with Peking, it is permitted to continue to supply Taiwan with military equipment of a "defensive" nature. It has continued to do so at a rate of about $700 million to $800 million worth of equipment each year. But Taiwan now wants to buy an advanced American fighter plane known as the FX.
An American official said recently that no decision had been made on Taiwan's request for the FX, but it is clear that Peking would oppose such a sale. A Washington Post report from Peking June 9 quoted sources close to China's foreign policymakers as saying that Peking is ready to tolerate continued US weapons sales to Taiwan only as long as they do not exceed their current sophistication or volume.
Although possible US military sales constitute the most controversial aspect of US-Chinese relations at the moment, Haig has a much broader discussion in mind as he flies to China. A senior official said one purpose of the visit to China June 14-17 would be to provide a public demonstration of the Reagan administration's intention to "improve and advance" American relations with the People's Republic. This official said it was indeed a "strategic imperative" that the "normalization" of relations between the US and China move forward.
If it were not for Republican Party sympathies for Taiwan, the new leadership in Washington and the old leadership in Peking might be ideally suited for each other. Both Reagan and Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping, China's de-facto top leader, see a threatening Soviet Union when they look out at the world.
As one senior State Department official puts it, the US- Chinese relationship currently rests on three main pillars: a similarity of views on a host of global strategic issues; a common concern for stability and economic progress in Asia; and a recognition of a "historic friendship" between the Chinese and American peoples.
Richard Bush, a China scholar with the Asia Society, said one purpose of the HAig trip would have to be to "clear the air and minimize some of the damage caused by loose cannons." He was referring to statements made by a White House official and a Cabinet member that seemed to contradict Haig's restrained approach to the delicate issue of Taiwan.
One indication that the US wants to make the Haig visit to China a success was the disclosure June 4 that Reagan will propose to the Chinese the creation of a new joint commission to deal with trade and commercial matters. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige said he had been asked by the President to chair the US side of the commission.
"The new commission will signal our commitment to begin a dialogue on industrial cooperation and to address a wide range of business facilitation issues in order to improve the operating conditions for American companies doing business in China," Mr. Baldrige said in a speech to the National Council for US-China trade.
Another apparent positive sign for US-China relations was China's ready acceptance of Reagan's nomination of Arthur W. Hummel Jr., a Chinese-speaking career diplomat, to be the next US ambassador to peking. Mr. Hummel, currently ambassador to Pakistan, was born in China.