IF wisdom indeed comes from failure, then a recent Reagan miscue should have made sages of us all. The visit of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang to the United States netted the two countries a couple of tangible successes - a new industrial-cooperation agreement and renewal of a five-year-old science and technology accord - plus a host of good feelings, despite the matter of Taiwan. But it was a tangible failure to agree, on an issue other than Taiwan, that was most revealing. And what it revealed the most was the direction of American foreign policy.
On the second day of Zhao's visit, President Reagan proposed a comprehensive anti-Soviet strategic partnership between the United States and China. Zhao promptly rejected the offer, saying that China and the US have too many foreign-policy differences.
Zhao's reasons for rejecting the pact likely extend well beyond differences over Taiwan, including perhaps a sensitivity to the Soviets' fears of encirclement that we apparently lack. But his rationale is really beside the point. In fact, the Chinese rejection of the proposal is itself beside the point , because the significant fact about a US-China strategic alignment is not that it was refused but that it was offered at all. For the offer reveals that US foreign policy is, in its essence, not anti-communist, but anti-Russian.
Any high school math student can tell you that if you cooperate with Chinese communism against Russian communism, then you can cancel out the ''communisms'' to find that your real gripe is with Russia.
Perhaps Reagan's hoped-for alliance would be for the best. But before we jump let's admit that a sincere and vigilant moral opposition to communism does not require us to ignore the obvious and none-too-subtle distinctions between Soviet and Chinese foreign policies, nor even differences in their internal affairs. It does, however, require that we not enter into comprehensive strategic agreements with one communist country in order to subsume, or even defend against, another.
For when we enter into military alliances, or even propose them, our criticisms lose their moral force, and the likelihood of our making even a show of opposition becomes increasingly improbable. The histories of our relations with Turkey, South Africa, Iran under the Shah, South Vietnam, and the Philippines should serve as ample evidence of the ineffectiveness, then the emptiness, and finally the silence of our moral opposition to the ways of our allies in the anti-Russia brigade.
The important thing is that we should define our terms, and with them our goals. If we want to oppose communism then we should oppose communism, but let us do it consistently. If we want to oppose Russian expansionism then let's do that. If we feel the need to oppose Russian expansionism at the price of our anti-communism, then we should do that also. This, in fact, is President Reagan's value system, revealed by his offer of alliance to Zhao.
If this is the proper policy for our country, then let's relinquish Taiwan, iron out our other differences, and ally ourselves with China. But if we do that then let's not claim to be the bulwark of the free world against communism. For what we really would be doing is bulwarking Chinese communism against the free world.