The ambiguities of the United States-China relationship were highly visible yesterday as Chinese President Li Xiannian and his party left Peking for a goodwill tour of North America. Before boarding his airplane for Vancouver, President Li strongly criticized interference by the US Congress in China's family-planning policy and repeated Chinese objections to US arms sales to Taiwan.
Referring to two resolutions adopted by the US House of Representatives Wednesday condemning China's birth-control policy as involving forced abortion and accusing the country of ``crimes against humanity,'' President Li said the charges were a ``total fabrication and distortion.''
``I think it's interference in China's internal affairs and that is absolutely unacceptable to us,'' he said, referring to the amendments to the US foreign-aid bill which would prevent President Reagan from providing funds to international organizations with family-planning programs in China.
China's elder statesman is an unlikely table pounder, however, and his 20-day tour of Canada and the US is intended to symbolize the broader common interests China seeks to establish with the West. From the Chinese point of view, these interests are mainly economic, and President Li and his entourage, which includes Vice-Premier Li Peng, will be looking to enhance trade and US and Canadian business investments in China.
The Chinese are disappointed in the level of economic and technological cooperation with the US so far, and have objected strongly to trade laws that restrict their sizable textile exports to the US. There is also an impasse on concluding an agreement on nuclear technology.
Taiwan remains the major problem in US-China relations, Chinese leaders say. President Li told reporters yesterday that ``the question of Taiwan remains the biggest obstacle in Sino-US relations.''
One Chinese foreign-policy insider recently pointed out that after each high point in Chinese-American relations (Richard Nixon's visit of 1972, normalization of relations in 1979, and Reagan's visit in 1984) there has been a honeymoon followed by a cooling-off period.
The ambiguity of President Li's visit is heightened by the perception that the US-China relationship in recent months has entered one of these cooling-off periods, because of the aborted port call by US Navy ships which was expected in May, the exchange of words over family-planning policy, and the ongoing trade dispute.
China's relations with Canada stand in contrast to those with the US. To the Chinese, Canada is an ``old friend'' who extended diplomatic recognition in 1970, nine years before the US. Despite a sizable trade surplus in Canada's favor (mainly because of Chinese purchases of Canadian wheat), the two countries' ``fundamental interests are in harmony,'' according to an editorial in this week's issue of the official Peking Review.
The same editorial described relations with the US as generally stable and having great potential, though ``there exist differences of principle as well as common points on international issues,'' it said.