US relations with China seem to be back to business as usual, despite the ban on high-level contacts with Beijing. Early this week Secretary of State James Baker met Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Cairo. Qian reportedly told Baker that China would go along with yet another United Nations resolution against Iraq, while continuing to oppose any resort to force to evict Iraq from Kuwait.
The ban on high-level contacts, imposed following Tiananmen Square 17 months ago, is formally still in effect. But national security adviser Brent Scowcroft has visited China twice since the ban, at first in secret, then openly. Senior government officials at sub-cabinet level have received Chinese officials in Washington, while other officials acknowledge that Washington is not waiting for the old men who rule China to leave the scene.
China is too important a strategic partner for the US to ignore, said one official recently. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and its cooperation is essential for the UN to take concerted action against Iraq. China has also helped the effort to end the civil war in Cambodia, an effort led by the Security Council's five permanent members.
Military exchanges with China have not been resumed. But Chinese exports to the US are booming. This year, China is likely to have a $10 billion trade surplus with the United States - more than any other country except Japan.
Meanwhile Congress continues to express public indignation over Tiananmen, coupled with demands for trade restrictions.
``My fellow-members,'' said Rep. Gerald Solomon (R) of New York in a debate last month, ``have we so soon forgotten the feeling of injustice and tyranny that overwhelmed us as we saw films of tanks and troops mowing down and literally crushing innocent civilians who stood unarmed, pleading with their own army not to kill them?''
Mr. Solomon was introducing a resolution cutting off most-favored-nation trade privileges for China. It passed the House with a comfortable majority but never reached the Senate. The question will come before Congress again, with President Bush threatening to veto the resolution unless its terms are softened.
Behind this dispute between Congress and the administration lies a dilemma: how to balance concern over human rights against geopolitical and strategic interests. In China's case, there is an additional factor: The leaders responsible for Tiananmen are mostly octogenarians, unlikely to remain in power for long.
``It's a regime of old men who are frightened by what happened in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and who see communism collapsing around them, and they are determined to hang on by force,'' says Roger Sullivan, president of the US-China Business Council, the umbrella organization for US companies doing business with China. The most practical response to the regime ``is to do what the Chinese themselves are doing - it's just to wait them out.''
That is precisely what the administration insists it is not doing. It cannot wait, it says; issues like the Gulf crisis come up suddenly and require immediate consultation.
A China isolated from the world, attempting self-sufficiency, may be the nostalgic preference of some of the old men in Beijing. But there is wide agreement among China experts that to try to quarantine such a vast population would be dangerously destabilizing. The leadership would simply dig in its heels, and tensions within China could well stretch to breaking point.
Legislators do not necessarily disagree. Solomon presented his bill expecting that the administration would veto it and arguing that human rights could best be promoted by the good cop-bad-cop routine, the administration being the good cop offering the carrot and Congress the bad cop brandishing the stick. Other legislators like Don Pease (D) of Ohio have presented less emotional, more calculated efforts to promote human rights, only to find themselves undercut by more extremist colleagues.
The effect of this contradictory approach is frequently confusing, critics say. Countries like China, without the tradition of an independent legislature, hear the rhetoric of a Solomon and see the actions of a Baker or of a Scowcroft. Somewhere between the two there must be a better way.