SINCE the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, relations between the United States and China have not been warm. But in recent weeks, they have become downright frosty as Beijing relentlessly pushed its bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics, and the West continued to criticize Chinese human rights and arms-proliferation policies.
With the International Olympic Committee (IOC) set to pick its 2000 site on Sept. 23, Chinese officials are complaining bitterly about what they see as moralistic meddling with their long-held Olympic dream. ``China fully shares the lofty ideals of the Olympic movement. A few blame us out of political motives. It's not fair,'' said Beijing government spokesman Wu Zhongyuan on Sept. 20.
The US, for its part, remains particularly worried about China and weapons. US intelligence reports now hold that China is preparing for an underground nuclear test at its Lop Nor bomb-development site. Quiet diplomatic requests that China remain part of the world's de facto testing moratorium have been rebuffed - so President Clinton himself is now openly protesting the preparations.
``Every other nuclear power has forsworn the use of testing,'' he said last weekend.
If China does go ahead with its test, the Clinton administration would be presented with a difficult political problem that officials thought they had avoided. Pro-nuclear-testing factions in the Pentagon and State Department would have a stronger hand, particularly if a Chinese nuclear explosion causes France or Russia to break ranks and also resume testing.
The decision to stop tests, after all, was a hard one for the US. The pro-testing side argues that such hands-on use is necessary to ensure the continued safety of the arsenal. Anti-testing advocates, strongly represented among Democrats in Congress, say safety can be ensured through non-nuclear tests - and that a testing moratorium gives the US more moral authority to urge nuclear nonproliferation on the rest of the world.
The diplomatic problem is that, at this point, there is little the US can do. The State Department has been quietly lobbying the Chinese on the issue for months; public pressure could well be counterproductive.
``The louder you argue against that, the more likely they will go ahead,'' says Chong Pin Lin, a China scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Meanwhile, the upcoming Olympic vote appears to have put the Chinese on edge. Beijing has thrown immense resources into its drive to be an Olympic host, undoubtedly seeing the Summer Games as an opportunity for positive images to replace the negative ones of Tiananmen.
Chinese officials have even released a few prominent political prisoners in an effort to appear more liberal. But the human rights issue just won't go away. This summer the House of Representatives easily passed a resolution urging that China's bid be turned down, because of rights abuses. On Sept. 20, the private group Asia Watch said China's most extensive trial of dissidents in two years is being delayed until after the IOC's Sept. 23 vote.
Fifteen dissidents are to be tried for charges that could subject them to the death penalty, said Asia Watch.
If China's bid is rejected, Beijing will undoubtedly blame the West. And a loss may well be likely. On the merits of infrastructure, transportation, financial backing, etc., Sydney is widely thought to have a stronger case.
Ironically, some experts think that allowing China to host the Olympics would be a positive development from a human rights point of view. Beijing may think it can control the infusion of foreigners that would accompany an Olympic Games. But the attitudes they bring with them and example of prosperity they set could hardly be hidden from the Chinese people. The Games might well have a liberalizing effect.
The Seoul Olympics had such an effect on South Korea, accompanying a widespread relaxing of curbs on human rights. China, however, is widely viewed as a far more repressive society than South Korea.
In the long run, economic forces may make the whole issue moot. China's old guard is very old and capitalism in the country is taking root. Political liberalization may be inevitable. ``The rising social forces and market forces are so strong,'' notes scholar Chong Pin Lin.
The IOC has not been happy about the controversy around Beijing's bid. IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch criticized US politicians this week, saying he did not understand why they could oppose holding the Olympics in a nation that qualifies for US Most Favored Nation status.
But despite the IOC's best efforts, its choice of host will be fraught with political overtones. One Chinese Olympic official, in a bitter outburst, last week said that if Beijing is denied for 2000, Chinese athletes might boycott the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. The Chinese government has denied that this is official policy, and said that the Olympic official was speaking for himself.