OFFICIALS in Beijing, particularly leaders of the People's Liberation Army, believe that the United States is determined to keep China weak and divided. Until the Clinton administration allowed Lee Teng-hui, president of Taiwan, to travel to Cornell University to receive an honorary degree this June, this idea remained a suspicion. But reports from China indicate that speculation and debate have now ended and certainty prevails.
Beijing is convinced that Washington is engaged in a conspiracy designed to prevent China from gaining the power, prestige, and influence its size and prosperity warrant. This conclusion is absurd. In imagining an American plot, Beijing assumes a coordinated China policy which, put simply, gives this administration too much credit for coherence, focus, and planning. A quick review of Clinton China policy ought to make that clear.
Candidate Bill Clinton made human rights in China an issue, pledging to call Beijing to account in ways that George Bush abjured. As president, Mr. Clinton quickly found that he had trapped himself. By linking human rights practices with the granting of most-favored-nation treatment he alienated the American business community and failed to coerce China into changing its ways.
For an administration focused on creating jobs and business opportunities, trade discrimination against a trade partner as large as China could not be sustained. So Clinton backed down, reversed himself, and called upon Beijing to mitigate his capitulation by improving its human rights record. Instead abuses worsened, becoming so flagrant that dissidents were arrested during a visit of Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The State Department's annual human rights report stated at the beginning of 1995 that China had made no progress, and yet across town Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown bragged about the hefty contracts he had helped American executives sign in China just weeks before.
Does this sound like an organized, logical, consistent policy that effectively pursues American interests? As though these lapses were not enough, despite the continuing fragility of US-China relations, the White House recently chose as the next ambassador to China a former Democratic senator who, however bright and capable, knows little about China policy or even foreign affairs.
It is not clear why the United States would want to keep China weak and frustrated. It is not in American interests to have a government in Beijing that is factionalized, fragmented, or fundamentally dissatisfied. A weak regime cannot cooperate effectively on a variety of issues that demand coordinated action. Weakness of the central government in controlling the provinces would prevent effective curbs on environmental pollution, undermine enforcement of commitments such as protection of intellectual property rights, and allow drug trafficking to flourish. Disunity threatens a flood of refugees, adding to the already difficult problem of Vietnamese boat people and other displaced groups.
It is true that, whereas Washington does not strive to weaken China, it also doesn't want to see the emergence of a China belligerent and aggressive as well as strong. Chinese assertiveness, when undisciplined by wisdom in Beijing, has led to confrontation over the Spratly Islands. There China felt justified in asserting a historic claim, but its projection of power frightened the Philippines and others in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a time when Beijing had been attempting to improve relations.
Similarly Beijing's desire for greater power and prestige aims in part at keeping Japanese influence from dominating the region. Yet, Chinese truculence may be more likely than any other single factor to provoke a Japanese military buildup. China has also insisted on continuing tests of nuclear weapons at a time when all other nuclear powers had been observing a moratorium.
Despite promises that Hong Kong could keep its free market system and a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after reversion to China in 1997, Beijing has already begun to interfere in local politics, to coerce the media, manipulate business decisions, and undermine the rule of law.
In recent days, tensions in US-China relations have risen to levels not seen since the early 1960s when ideological fanaticism on both sides made flexibility and cooperation impossible. The background to the current decline encompasses American reactions to the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 and to subsequent human rights abuses; frictions over trade, intellectual property rights, and nuclear weapons proliferation; Beijing's unhappiness over the sale of F-16s to Taiwan; alleged American obstruction of China's admission to the World Trade Organization and its application to host the Olympic Games; and what it labels general interference in Chinese internal affairs.
THE immediate trigger was the Lee visit, which symbolized to Beijing intolerable American support for a ''two Chinas'' or ''one China, one Taiwan'' policy that undermines Beijing's claims to the island.
China has been discomforted over the last few years by Taiwan's growing international prestige, occasioned both by its economic boom and its democratization - a prestige that threatens to hinder eventual reunification, still a fundamental tenet of China rendered even more central since nationalism began to replace communism as the official ideology.
It is clearly past time that both sides step back from the brink. Beijing must understand that the United States is not following a strategy dedicated to weakening it. Top leaders must listen to advisers who can explain the intricacies of the American political system and the inability of the president to prevent an unusually activist Republican Congress from pushing some unwise foreign-policy initiatives, including naming an official envoy to Tibet, supporting Taiwan admission to the United Nations, and initiating a second Lee visit to the US.
THAT Beijing should protest the Lee trip is not unreasonable, but to punish the United States by recalling its ambassador, canceling high level visits, disrupting talks on missile controls and nuclear proliferation, and threatening to deny lucrative contracts to American business is no more constructive than the American Congress's shortsighted resolutions.
Of course, the United States government also has a responsibility here, and that is finally to devise a China policy. If China is to be convinced that the US does not wish it ill, Washington must show consistency, purpose, and imagination. Both the president and the secretary of state have to pay attention to this great power. In fact, without some dramatic action - a summit meeting, for instance - there will be a prolonged period of very rough relations. Perhaps this makes for good domestic politics. But it's detrimental to regional stability and to world peace.