Behind the effusive handshakes and the "hearts and flowers" approach Peking has taken toward visiting Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., an element of suspicion remains in Chinese attitudes toward the Reagan administration.
Taiwan is still the litmus test of Washington's intentions. Whatever Haig may say publicly, it is doubtful that his visit will suffice to clear the atmosphere. While Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues talk to the American secretary of state (and find agreement with him on many issues), on Taiwan they are looking across his shoulder to President Reagan and to his White House advisers.
Two questions particularly bother the Chinese.
First, and most sensitive: Will the United States sell advanced new fighter planes to Taiwan?
Second: Will it restore a degree of "officiality" to its relations with Taiwan? The issue is symbolic, but symbolism is sometimes as powerful as substance in moving people's emotions and passions.
Mr. Haig must have confirmed to the Chinese the administration's decision to defer sales of the yet-to-be-built FX fighter to Taiwan. It is doubtful that he can reassure China fully that such sales will never be made. Not only is there opposition from the Republican right, there is the question of what policy the Reagan administration will adopt toward arms sales to developing countries. And there is the matter of competition between two contract-hungry American companies, Northrup and General Dynamics.
The FX is designed for sale to developing countries unable or unwilling to afford the astronomical price of the most advanced planes in the American arsenal.
The FX concept might survive without sales to Taiwan, but its commercial viability would be heavily jeopardized. Peking wants to know whether the Reagan administration values the much-discussed strategic relationship with China enough to put aside such considerations.
Chinese sources have already noticed that Mr. Reagan, while warning loudly of Soviet expansionism, has repealed the grain embargo imposed by his predecessor. "We listen to his words, and watch his deeds -- that is an old Chinese proverb," said one source.
Earlier, during the presidential campaign, Chinese official news media lashed out at Mr. Reagan for indicating that he wanted to upgrade Taiwanese relations with Washington. Peking took this as a violation of the joint communique establishing full diplomatic relations with Washington, which stated, "The United States of America recognizes the government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China," and, "Taiwan is part of China."
Neither Mr. Haig nor the State Department has ever suggested any change in the unofficial nature of Taiwan's relations with Washington. But in April Peking was surprised and unhappy over remarks attributed to presidential adviser Edwin S. Meese III that it felt reopened the "officiality" issue.
Meanwhile, Peking claims to have done a great deal to lessen tension along the Taiwan Strait.
Peking will never give up the right to resort to force if other means fail, as this is an issue that touches on sovereignty, its advocates maintain.
But the Taiwan Strait today is probably more peaceful than at any other time since the communists took power in 1949. China's major defense preoccupation is the Soviet Union, not Taiwan. And it has cut back its military budget to emphasize industrialization and economic growth -- which will require at least 20 years of peace. Any US move to supply new arms to Taiwan now could only destabilize the Taiwan-mainland relationship, Peking sources argue.
To sum up, the Reagan administration is still in the early days of its relationship with Peking. Undoubtedly the Haig visit has improved the general atmosphere. But time is required for full confidence to be built up on the Chinese side. The relationship between Peking and Washington is not yet so solid or secure that it cannot be shipwrecked on the rocks and shoals of Taiwan.