The United States today faces a crisis which need never happen because some people in the administration and the Congress, under pressure from the formidable Taiwan lobby, want to sell Taiwan a high-performance fighter aircraft. The practical effect of such a sale, if history and the repeated statements of China's leaders are any guide, will almost certainly be that US relations with the People's Republic of China will return to the strained and awkward level that existed before the 1979 establishment of diplomatic relations , with all the negative impact this would inevitably have on trade and the important strategic relationship.
What is worst of all, even the advocates of this sale are unable to point to any compensating strategic or economic benefit to justify putting the China relationship, so painstakingly constructed under four administrations, at risk.
How can this be? Surely no player in the foreign policy process of the US would recommend an action which was all down-side risk no matter how popular the decision might be with some constituents or how much pressure foreign or domestic lobbies were bringing to bear. Of course not, and that is why the advocates of selling high technology weapons to Taiwan, knowing there are no benefits to point to, prefer to make light of the risks. The Chinese are bluffing, they say.
I don't believe they are. When Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping says that those who think that China is bluffing don't know their history and that China ''did not collapse before 1972 (the year President Nixon opened the dialogue with China) much less will it collapse now,'' I take him at his word. I do so for two reasons. First, why gamble that he is bluffing when there is nothing to win and a great deal to lose. Secondly, I believe him because I understand the domestic sensitivities that surround the Taiwan issue in China.
In 1979, when the US recognized the PRC rather than the ''Republic of China'' on Taiwan as the sole legal government of China, it made clear that continuing unofficial ''trade, cultural, and other'' relations with Taiwan would have to include arms shipments. The Peking leadership publicly acknowledged this disagreement but noted it had not prevented the two sides from establishing diplomatic relations.
The mainland Chinese were able to accede to the US selling what came to be described as ''limited quantities of carefully selected defensive arms'' largely because they were assured, as President Carter recently explained to the press, that ''the weapons would not be advanced weapons and not be offensive in nature.''
A high-performance aircraft, better than the F-5E which Taiwan already has and which is itself superior to anything in the PRC inventory, has always been considered by both sides to be ''advanced,'' ''offensive,'' and clearly beyond the PRC's tolerance level for sales to Taiwan. It is also unnecessary. Tension in the Taiwan Strait is at an historic low as the PRC works to convert Fujian Province, once an armed camp opposite Taiwan, into a modern port and free trade zone.
The intelligence analysts and foreign affairs specialists in the US government agree that China has neither the means nor the inclination to attack Taiwan. On the contrary, China seems to be doing everything it can to encourage what we have long urged Peking to support: negotiations leading eventually toward a peaceful solution of the Taiwan problem by the Chinese themselves as envisaged in the 1972 Shanghai communique.
Why, then, do we risk our hard-won diplomatic relationship, our critical strategic relationship, our growing economic relationship and, perhaps, even the security and well-being which the people of Taiwan have enjoyed these past three years of normalization? There is no answer unless you believe the Chinese are just bluffing.
President Reagan did not get where he is today by taking bad gambles. He also has a well-deserved reputation for dealing with important issues pragmatically. He has an opportunity to demonstrate this once again by taking steps to assure that a crisis in US relations with China in fact does not occur.