THE time has come to normalize relations with China, for the United States to treat the government of that nation as it deserves to be treated, as Washington would treat any government hostile to American interests and values.
For three-and-a-half years after the Tiananmen massacre, the Bush administration winked at Chinese transgressions and persisted in giving China the preferential treatment once justified by the exigencies of the cold war.
On occasion, under intense pressure from Congress and the media, the president scolded the Chinese or imposed nominal sanctions, even entertained the Dalai Lama while signaling continuing US support for the regime in Beijing.
The collapse of the Soviet empire eliminated the last remaining rationalization for Bush's policies.
Bill Clinton's campaign approach toward China was harsher, echoing the sentiments of congressional Democrats and former Ambassador to China Winston Lord. President Clinton's appointment of Mr. Lord as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs has put the Chinese on notice that the US expects improvement in the Chinese government's performance at home and abroad.
The fact that the men who rule the People's Republic claim to be communists is irrelevant. For most Americans, anticommunism is meaningless in the post-cold- war era. Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues have been described aptly by Roger Sullivan, former president of the US-China Business Council and long one of the leading government specialists on China, as analogous to aging Mafia dons, with Premier Li Peng as one of their lieutenants.
Their ultimate concern is the retention of power, without regard to ideology. It is no socialist utopia they struggle to preserve, nor is it anything as trivial as the spreading of market economies that must drive American policy.
The reason the current regime in Beijing must be challenged is that it operates beyond the norms of the international community, disregarding its obligations under the United Nations Charter. It exacerbates threats to world peace by cooperating with Iran in development of the latter's nuclear weapons technology, and by selling ballistic missiles to any country that seeks to purchase them.
The Chinese ignore international attempts to achieve nuclear nonproliferation and the control of missile technology. They persist in supporting the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as it undermines the efforts of UN peacekeepers to bring calm to that benighted country.
The Chinese government engages in restrictive business practices to prevent the importation of American goods while subsidizing its own exports by means that include the exploitation of prison labor.
It refuses to assist international efforts to protect the environment, producing ever-increasing amounts of acid rain over Japan and the rest of East Asia. It threatens Hong Kong's movement toward democracy.
It is a government that violates the rights of its own people - that denies them the religious freedom promised in their own constitution and imprisons, tortures, and kills them for attempting peaceful protests. All this in violation of its obligation as a member of the UN to recognize human rights.
In sum, it is a government whose policies are contrary to the interests and ideals of all Americans. The fact that the US also sells arms and munitions around the world and that it also supported the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese in the 1980s, and that it has been guilty of a variety of offenses against human decency, as in El Salvador and Nicaragua, or in its treatment of Haitian refugees, is reprehensible and should be condemned.
But the crimes of the American government must not be used by relativists as an apology for Chinese actions. The misdeeds of both should be stopped.
Forces for change in China must not be discouraged by signals that the US accepts existing conditions. Chinese violations of international norms and agreements should be denounced constantly and publicly. Trade and cultural contracts should be maintained to strengthen those elements in Chinese society receptive to the democratic reforms that one day will transform China and lead it to play a benign role in world affairs.
On the other hand, unfair trade practices should be met with sanctions, and efforts should be made to restrict Chinese access to advanced technology, especially anything with potential military application, until China becomes a more responsible member of the international community.
Unless Clinton quickly succeeds in obtaining more conciliatory conduct with the Chinese government, Congress will probably make most-favored-nation (MFN) treatment of Chinese trade conditional in June.
Most students of Chinese affairs, in and out of government, agree that conditional MFN is an unwieldy weapon, unlikely to bring about the response desired from Beijing, and harmful to the Chinese people.
The dilemma is not easily resolved. Li Peng and his principals are willing and able to allow their people to endure the hardship loss of MFN, rather than risk any actions that would threaten their hold on power.
The new administration in Washington should inform the Chinese people, with words and actions, of the friendship the American people have for them - and leave no doubt in the minds of their leaders the kind of behavior expected of them.
The US wants from China what it would want from any great power, and what most politically mobile Chinese want for their country: peaceful evolution toward a regime that respects its people, gives them a voice in how they are governed, conforms to the accepted norms of international behavior, and accepts the responsibilities of its place on the Security Council of the UN.
We abdicate our own responsibilities as the world's greatest power if we settle for less.