IT is hard to keep United States-China relations on track. One month they're down, the next month up. There are enough tough issues to keep relations rocky at best - trade, human rights, Taiwan, nuclear testing, advanced weapons sales in the third world, to name a few. More troublesome is the frame of mind in which each country approaches the other. These mind-sets virtually assure that the US and China talk past each other, not to each other. US President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin ought to make this basic problem of communication a priority during their prospective October summit. Specific issues, important as they are, can be handled by foreign ministers and ambassadors. It takes the top leaders to build the framework. The main characteristic of the existing framework is Chinese paranoia. In the words of Prof. David Shambaugh of the University of London, the Chinese see US policy as designed to divide China territorially, subvert it politically, contain it strategically, and frustrate it economically. Add to this a xenophobia with deep cultural roots: The Chinese have been ethnocentric as long as there has been a China. Add fierce nationalism stoked by a history of Western oppression in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mix this with pride in Chinese achievements since their Communist revolution, coupled with demand for international respect and resentment for having been treated like an international outcast for so long. Take note of the Chinese view that Taiwan is a part of China and only the extension of US protection to the island in 1950 prevented the completion of unification. Negotiation barriers There's a touch of paranoia on the American side too. Hysteria about the ''yellow peril'' may be behind us, but containment of China was one of the arguments for fighting the Vietnam War and is one of the arguments for reestablishing relations with Vietnam. As long as these attitudes persist, they present formidable barriers to negotiating such mundane issues as rules for trade and investment; they are an almost insurmountable wall in talking about human rights. The way out of this impasse, if there is one, lies in calm, low-key talk and patient, repetitive explanation. But the times in both the US and China, alas, conspire against such an approach. In the US, the coming presidential election process is guaranteed to bring forth red-blooded, true-blue, China-bashing rhetoric, thereby confirming Beijing's worst fears. In China, the reins are slipping from the hands of Deng Xiaoping, the remarkable nonagenarian who opened the country to foreign investment and at least semifree enterprise, and the power of his designated successor is not yet consolidated. This is a prescription for hot Maoist America-bashing as the contending forces maneuver. Charges and countercharges In the US, charges of ''soft on communism'' have lost some of the emotion they once had, but they still pack a punch, especially with respect to China. Straight talk needs to be addressed to the hard-liners in both Washington and Beijing. An effort to understand the other party in a negotiation is not being soft; it's being smart. Tailoring a proposition to get what you want without giving offense is effective diplomacy. Politicians know this. They practice it every time they meet with a group of constituents; curiously, however, they act like it doesn't apply to foreigners. There are some contradictions in Chinese behavior, too. The Chinese lobbied hard to get the UN World Conference on Women to meet in Beijing. They saw this as a mark of international respect. It was a welcome boost to the Chinese national ego. But the thousands of women who overwhelmed Beijing and its environs were more than the hosts had bargained for. When Amnesty International complained about the execution of 16 Chinese prisoners (which had been reported in the Communist Party's own newspaper), the Chinese complained that Amnesty was prejudiced against China. Both the US and China are trying to get more out of their mutual relationship than the traffic will bear. Both need to decide what is most important. If the Chinese want to participate in the world, they have to accept (not necessarily like) the way the world works. If the US wants to get along with China, it has to accept (not necessarily like) the way the Chinese work. Nobody said any of this would be easy.