No country is more important to the United States than China. It has the most people, a huge land area, large numbers of ethnic Chinese abroad including those in the US, nuclear weapons, and a rapidly growing economy providing markets and investment opportunities.
With no country does the US have more irritants in its relations.
There are questions of self-determination (Taiwan and Tibet), suspected espionage, persecution of religious sects and political dissidents, mistreatment of Americans, the US's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization, and Chinese campaign contributions to the Democrats in 1996.
Nowhere is it more important for the US to keep foreign policy focused on the overriding national interest, gradually increasing the integration of China in the world community through trade and investment. This could even lead to moderation in Chinese politics.
The US has other national interests in China. It would be nice to resolve all the frictions in our Chinese relations in ways that would promote American values. But this is pie in the sky.
China is not going to become a liberal democracy. There will be no US-style bill of rights, no two-party system of elections, no separation of powers.
The US should, therefore, avoid getting hung up on single-issue diplomacy. It is worse than useless - it is even counterproductive - to make improved Chinese human rights performance a condition for an unrelated benefit such as membership in the World Trade Organization.
Chinese membership in the WTO is as much in the US interest as it is in China's. It would mark a significant step toward further enmeshing China in the world trading system.
From the American point of view, it would subject China to rules recognizing intellectual property rights affecting computer software and musical recordings, among others things.
Linking trade and human rights will yield progress in neither area. Thus, the worst of both worlds.
The most troublesome issue with China is Taiwan.
More than likely, China would rather go to war over Taiwan than suffer the blow to its national pride if Taiwan were to declare independence.
This is not certain, but it is close enough that we ought not to test China to find out.
We urgently need to find a way to keep Taiwan from testing China. There is a temptation in Taiwan to do this, a temptation strengthened by implied US defense guarantees.
Taiwan is not worth a Sino-American war, neither to China nor the US. Yet if China attacked Taiwan, however great the provocation, it would be next to impossible for the US to stay out.
Any shred of credibility America retains in China after the embassy bombing would be at stake, as would the balance of power in the rest of Asia.
There would also be great political pressure in the US for intervention, especially from Congress. Congress is already complicating American diplomacy by demanding increased arms sales to Taiwan.
The US ought to tell the Taiwanese to chill out, that there will be no more arms sales. And we ought to make sure that the mainland Chinese know it. The Republican chairmen of the foreign affairs committees in Congress - Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York - are reviving memories of the "Who lost China?" debate of the 1950s.
This debate drove Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin to infamy and cost the US 20 years of sterile China policy until President Richard Nixon, of all people, began the delicate process of undoing the harm.
It is as important to frustrate Helms-Gilman wrongheadedness in Washington as it is to quiet the bombast in Taipei and the jitters in Beijing.
Some of the jitters come from an anxiety that the US is encircling China with security relationships as it did with the Soviet Union during the cold war.
Implausible as it may be, Kosovo and the embassy bombing are seen as precedents for Tibet, Taiwan, and the northwestern China province of Xinjiang.
This anxiety is fueled by Republican suggestions that the US should turn from the Balkans to China "to check Beijing's ambitions," as it was put in the Weekly Standard.
Still more fuel comes from revived agitation in Washington for an antiballistic missile system to protect Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. (The main threat here is from North Korea, but the Chinese don't see it that way.)
Being a superpower gives the US influence, but not omnipotence. We have already stretched ourselves too thin in southeast Europe and possibly Iraq. We should not stretch ourselves thinner in China.
*Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs. He lives in Washington.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society