The passing of Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping has occurred at a time when the complex relationship between China and the United States faces an unprecedented period of potential confrontations.
From the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, to the growing US trade deficit with Beijing, to allegations of Chinese money in US politics, a series of delicate issues could challenge Sino-American ties in 1997. Whether the absence of Deng affects them remains to be seen - but together they surely represent one of President Clinton's foremost foreign policy challenges.
In fact, dealing with the dragon in the East might well develop into the most important diplomatic job for a generation of US chief executives to come. China's economy is growing about as fast an an economy ever has, and will be bigger than that of the US in a few decades. Chinese-made goods fill the shelves of US stores, to the point that China may have replaced Japan as America's biggest trade problem.
Beijing's regional political clout is similarly increasing, and its military spending is on the rise, as well. In sum, China is making itself into a superpower at just the time America sees itself as the only superpower left in the world. Top US diplomats have long talked about the need to be more Asia-oriented in their outlook. China alone may soon compel more of their attention.
"One of the problems in the Sino-American relationship has been that the Chinese don't understand why they're not more important to us, given how important we are to them," says Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a China expert at Georgetown University here. "They sometimes think we must be deceiving them."
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit today in Beijing may alleviate some concerns. Inclusion of China in her 11-day around-the-world tour is the "inauguration" of improved relations between the US and China, says a senior administration official. "President Clinton is personally very committed to improving relations in the second term."
The early years of the Clinton administration were not always good ones for US-Chinese relations. In June 1995, the White House allowed Taiwan President Lee Teng Hui to attend a college reunion in the US - greatly irritating Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province.
Disputes followed, over issues such as China's repression of dissidents and its military exercises near Taiwan. Only in the last year or so has rhetoric between Beijing and Washington thawed.
The substance behind many of the two nations' disputes, however, remains unchanged. "Relations are certainly in a very unsettled state," says Dr. Tucker. "The US needs to talk to China about many issues, from trade to nuclear proliferation."
American officials have long believed that Deng, despite his role in repressing domestic dissent, was someone who believed in good relations with the West. But no one in Washington is sure which direction the collective leadership that now appears to run Beijing will take.
Will a new generation of Chinese officials position their country as a wary rival of the US, through methods such as increased spending on the military? Or will they favor more of a partnership model, settling trade disputes with the US over contentions issues such as Chinese pirating of American technology?
If nothing else, the US needs to be prepared for various Beijing factions to now jockey for position, say some China-watchers. That means now is an unlikely time for President Jiang Zemin or any other top leader to be willing to make concessions in response to American pressure.
"If anything, the US has to be more cautious now in what it does in relation to China," says Thomas Christensen, a Cornell University political scientist.
This year features a number of potential flash points. Preeminent among them is the return of Hong Kong - an extraordinary event, in which a democracy (Britain) is returning a colony to an authoritarian state (China). Deng was the architect of the "One China, two systems" pact that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong freedoms. His passing has made some in the wealthy enclave nervous.
And Taiwan is carefully watching Hong Kong from afar, for hints as to what future course it should take. "The most important American [Chinese] policy is the one towards Taiwan," says Mr. Christensen. If the US encourages the Taiwanese to exert too much independence, it could spark a backlash from Beijing, he says.
Meanwhile, America remains China's largest economic market. Fully 60 percent of the shoes sold in the US come from China, for instance. Overall, America imported $51 billion in goods from China in 1996 - and sold only $12 billion in return.
The White House has stepped up pressure on China to lower trade barriers and buy more US goods. Until it does so, the US will block China's membership in the World Trade Organization.
Still, Americans should keep in mind that US relations with China have almost always been unsettled, says Alan Wachman of the China Institute in New York.
Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, "there is no question things are moving in the right direction," he says.