Chinese premier zhu rongji is visiting the United States this week for a six-city tour, to discuss all major issues of mutual concern between the US and China.
The timing of this visit -virtually on the 20th anniversary of the US Taiwan Relations Act - makes it a fitting occasion for the Clinton administration to address the US plans to sell weapons to Taiwan.
The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 was passed after the Carter administration switched the official US recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The act allows the US to continue economic and cultural relations with Taiwan, and permits the US to sell Taiwan enough weapons to defend itself.
Yet China is demanding that the US deny Taiwan additional missile defenses, thus leaving it vulnerable to the newly deployed ballistic missiles along China's southern coast. In effect, China is asking the US government to violate the TRA. This is after China has enhanced its own missile capabilities through the alleged theft of American technology and demonstrated its willingness to use missiles to intimidate Taiwan in March 1996.
The US should not only refuse to bow to these latest Chinese demands, it should instead ask China to recognize that the TRA is American law - which the US government is obliged to obey - if it wants the US to continue to recognize and follow its "one China" policy.
In the Shanghai Communiqu of 1972, which capped President Nixon's visit to China, the US acknowledged China's position that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is merely a province.
Since then, despite Taiwan's transformation into an international economic power and a democracy exercising de facto independence, the US has faithfully adhered to that position.
During his own visit to Shanghai last June, President Clinton even went beyond the call of diplomatic duty by spelling out "three nos" of US policy - no formal independence for Taiwan, no policy of "one China, one Taiwan," and no membership for Taiwan in international groups for which statehood is required.
In return for US deference to China's view of Taiwan, China has said nothing to indicate it recognizes the US's legal commitments to Taipei, as outlined in the TRA.
While the TRA is vague as to whether American forces would come to Taiwan's defense, it clearly calls on the US to sell Taiwan enough weapons to defend itself.
It further states that the US considers "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means of grave concern to the United States."
These provisions are central to American policy toward China and Taiwan, and the US should demand that China take cognizance of this if it wishes the US to continue adhering to the "one China" formula.
China may argue that there is no real parallel here because "one China," with the People's Republic of China as its sole legitimate government, is fundamental to China's sovereignty.
But as the TRA is part of the law of the land, US sovereignty is also involved. So too are American identity and honor.
During the premier's visit, the Clinton administration should present a tougher policy stance - that of a quid pro quo - with China. That strategy may not sit well at first, but it could strengthen the American hand.
The exchange could go like this:
The Clinton administration asks China to promise to handle its differences with Taiwan strictly "by peaceful means."
Zhu doubtless would refuse to make that promise - China has thus far refused to forswear the use of force against Taiwan.
The administration replies that the US might then amend its understanding of "one China" to meet current realities - namely, that Taiwan has for 50 years governed itself and is therefore clearly sovereign.
Finally, the administration says the US will no longer tolerate Chinese infringements on its sovereignty -notably Beijing's insistence on vetoing who is admitted to the US, preventing the US from issuing visas to high Taiwanese officials.
Then let a real dialogue begin.
Beijing would doubtless fulminate at first, but it would have to respect America's insistence on asserting its sovereign rights. The US and China could then negotiate differences, from theater missile defense to the World Trade Organization, on a basis of mutual respect - something that has been sorely lacking in recent Chinese-American relations.
*Lorna Hahn is executive director of the Association on Third World Affairs Inc., in Washington.