By the time today's babies graduate from college, China could be the world's largest economic superpower - bigger than the United States.
That's one reason President Clinton should go ahead with his visit to China late this month - despite his troubles with campaign finances and rocket-technology exports, says Murray Weidenbaum, top economic adviser to former President Reagan.
"China should be a major focus of attention to any presidential administration in Washington," says the chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business in St. Louis. "It makes good sense for the leaders of these two major nations to get to know each other."
Measured on the basis of national purchasing power, China has already passed Germany to become the third-largest economy in the world.
It might pass Japan in a decade or so, especially if the Japanese economy remains stalled for a while.
Though China's per capita purchasing power is low, only about $2,000 a year on average, there are a lot of Chinese - 1.2 billion.
And while they consume most of what they produce, China is currently the United States' fourth largest trading partner.
The two nations exchanged more than $75 billion in goods in 1997.
Clinton's diverse agenda
When President Clinton arrives in Beijing June 25 to meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, his agenda will be diverse: nuclear non proliferation, India-Pakistan tensions, economic uncertainty in East Asia, human rights including religious freedom, and trade.
Mr. Weidenbaum hopes the visit doesn't focus too much on contracts for American companies.
"That puts us in a vulnerable position," he says. "The Chinese wonder what is the purpose of the visit."
Weidenbaum doesn't get as incensed as some of his Republican colleagues over alleged efforts by the Chinese to influence the last American election with campaign money.
He recalls blatant moves by the US to win votes for its political friends in Italy, Chile, and other nations.
"They have no sense of history," he says.
Lower-level American trade officials are already in Beijing to continue negotiations over China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva. Trade Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky is scheduled to arrive late this week.
Push to lower trade barriers
China has a huge trade surplus with the US - about $40 billion to $50 billion a year. The US wants Chinese trade barriers further lowered before it will agree to China's membership in the WTO.
To the US, its trade talks with China in recent years have already made considerable progress.
China's exports of pirated CDs, VCRs, and digital disks have been "virtually eliminated," says Jay Ziegler, spokesman for the US trade representative.
A series of deals since 1994 have restrained China's exports of textiles and apparel.
The Chinese market for apples, cherries, and grapes has been opened. China's average tariff has been halved to 20 percent since 1993.
Whether Mr. Clinton will be able to announce a trade deal before July 4 when he's due in Hong Kong remains to be seen. "It is really for China to determine the progress in these talks," says Mr. Ziegler.
Bigger than trade issues is China's role in the management of the global economy.
C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics in Washington, hopes to see China shortly participating in the club of finance ministers and central bank governors of the seven largest industrial democracies. Russia just joined fully this group, making it the Group of Eight.
But China is poor. It is not a democracy. Its currency is not fully convertible into other currencies. So Mr. Bergsten does not see full membership in the G-8 yet.
But China should be encouraged to expand its international perspective, he maintains. This would help the reformers in internal Chinese debates over economic policies and political affairs.
China's arrival as an economic superpower depends on continued rapid growth of a real 7 percent a year for 20 or so years.
It may not happen.
"China's going to have terrible trouble," says Harald Malmgren, a Washington economic consultant. He sees a slide in China's economic growth to perhaps 5 percent this year "and maybe less next year."
One major economic stimulant, the inflow of foreign capital, may drop from about $50 billion last year to $25 billion this year and $10 billion in 1999, he says.
The 100 million or so jobless could rise. Banks could have financial problems.