A high Chinese official recently told a group of journalists that although he was optimistic about Sino-American relations in the long run, relations at present were far from satisfactory.
Taiwan, as usual, is the chief problem. There are others - the textile dispute, the Huguang railway bonds, transfer of technology, tennis player Hu Na's request for US asylum.
Without the perennial irritant of Taiwan, the other problems might be more manageable. Under the best of circumstances there is a gap between Chinese and American perceptions of Taiwan. But to a number of Western observers it appears that the Reagan administration has exacerbated the Taiwan issue to a point where confrontation is in danger of replacing cooperation in Sino-American relations.
When Rep. Thomas P. O'Neill, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, comes to China with a 15-man congressional delegation at the end of this month, he is likely to get many complaints both about Taiwan and other problems.
China and the United States share a sense of threat from the military power and expansionism of the Soviet Union. But this sense of shared threat is not great enough, in the Chinese view, to tolerate any American attempt to keep Taiwan forever separate from the People's Republic.
From the Chinese viewpoint, the Reagan administration's plans to supply large amounts of weapons to Taiwan this year and next year violate the joint Sino-American communique issued Aug. 17 last year. This communique was signed after long, painful negotiations stipulating that the US intended ''gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.''
The US also pledged that ''its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and China.'' Full diplomatic relations were established in 1979.
Last week the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador Arthur W. Hummel Jr. to say that American arms sales to Taiwan planned for the current and next fiscal years ''greatly exceed'' arms sales in recent years ''and are at variance with the stipulations'' of the Aug. 17 communique.
On March 21 a State Department spokesman replied that the arms sales plan was ''fully consistent'' with the communique. Unofficially, both sides agree that in 1979 the level of American arms sales to Taiwan was $598 million and that this figure should be used as the base figure.
The proposed arms sales for the current fiscal year are $800 million and for the next year, $780 million. Washington argues that, when adjustments are made for inflation, the US could supply as much as $830 million worth to Taiwan this year. Peking insists it never agreed to inflation-indexed figures.
The underlying problem is the growing Chinese perception that the Reagan administration has no serious interest in improving relations with China. Otherwise why, Chinese sources ask, should such problems as the arms sale issue, or President Reagan's recent interview with Human Events, or American opposition to replacing Taiwan with Peking in the Asian Development Bank, surface so soon after Secretary of State George Shultz's early February visit to Peking?
Peking was intensely irritated by President Reagan's interview because he linked reduction in arms sales to Taiwan with an explicit undertaking by China not to use force against that island. China is not threatening Taiwan, China is in fact proposing a peaceful, step-by-step process of reunification with Taiwan, Chinese sources repeatedly say. But reunification is an internal matter, and China will never renounce all the attributes of sovereignty, including the right to use force.
Some observers find this position contradictory, but it has been consistently held over a long period of time, and the US would never have been able to normalize relations with Peking had it insisted on an explicit renunciation of force.
President Reagan assumed that, in the Aug. 17 communique, China had made this concession. This fueled suspicion here that, although paying lip service to the concept that Taiwan is part of one China, the People's Republic, in fact the Reagan administration does not ever want to see the island and its 18 million people reunited with the mainland.