AS Washington gropes for a more effective policy toward Beijing, James Sasser, once an outspoken congressional critic of China and now US envoy to his one-time target, says he, too, is feeling his way along.
Mr. Sasser, a former US senator from Tennessee who was approved three months ago as ambassador to China, has finally taken up his post, charged with the task of sidestepping confrontation and smoothing over some jagged edges in relations with Beijing.
During the last year, the often-volatile ties between the two nations have again become unhinged over the threat of conflict over Taiwan. The two sides are also at odds over China's alleged sale of nuclear-weapons technology to Pakistan, copyright piracy, and Beijing's rough treatment of political dissidents.
But in a meeting Tuesday with American journalists, Sasser set aside past contentiousness and struck a conciliatory note. ''There's hardly a global or regional issue that doesn't involve cooperation between China and the United States,'' he said. While acknowledging ''a difficult road ahead,'' Sasser said he's ''of the mind that progress is possible.''
Despite earlier get-tough talk against Beijing by President Clinton, pressure to forge new investment and trade links has pushed him to pursue ''constructive engagement.'' That approach calls for seeking consensus rather than confrontation.
Eager to head off political battles with conservative Republican rivals over China, the administration is launching a new effort to mend ties while still threatening Beijing over trade, human rights, and weapons-proliferation policy. Over the next two months, top US officials plan to meet their Chinese counterparts. In early April, for instance, Anthony Lake, the national security adviser to the Clinton administration, is due to visit China. But even high-level talks will find progress difficult on the most vexing issues.
The Clinton administration is considering limited sanctions against China for what it claims was export of nuclear materials to Pakistan. Possible penalties could include blocking the export of American technology to China or punishing specific military-run businesses.
The US also threatens sanctions against China for failing to end widespread piracy of foreign music, films, and computer software. But a Western diplomat said that, although China is far from complying with a 1995 agreement to stop such counterfeiting, punitive action is unlikely in the near future.
The Taiwan issue remains difficult for Washington and Beijing. Last year, China was enraged when Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui made a private visit to the US. China saw the visit as part of a campaign to increase Taiwan's diplomatic profile that could lead to declared independence from the mainland.
China launched a series of military exercises aimed at intimidating Taiwan and undermining Mr. Lee's appeal in the run-up to the island's first direct presidential election on March 23. A new round of war games is reported to be planned before the vote, which Lee is expected to win. In the election aftermath, China worries that Lee could receive another invitation from congressional backers to make a state visit to the US.
But a Western diplomat suggested that, given China's strong reaction, some US congressmen may be hesitant to issue such an invitation, and Taiwan might not be so ready to accept. Last week, Lee called on the US to help reduce tension across the Taiwan Strait. Among Taiwanese leaders, a Western diplomat says, ''there is some sense that they overcooked the meat on this [issue].''
A Chinese analyst said that Beijing hopes Sasser's appointment will help channel China's position on Taiwan to Congress.
''It could help to further understanding between the Congress and China,'' he said, explaining that Beijing is trying to improve its image in the US.