Americans have been blowing hot and sour toward China for decades.
Now they're definitely sour.
The current attitude was summed up last week by President Bush after China released the 24 US crew members: "We have different values, yet common interests in the world."
The two nations' joint interests are in business and global security. But those interests often compete for emphasis with American values, such as human rights, religious freedom, and democracy.
Fortunately, the United States has been on a long learning curve with China to balance its instincts to promote its values while also pursuing its national interests.
Before the cold war, the US attitude toward China was one of almost missionary zeal, hoping that this ancient civilization could be quickly converted to join the modern (read Western) era.
The best example of that zeal came in a speech in 1940 by Nebraska Sen. Kenneth Wherry: "With God's help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City!"
Such naivete largely disappeared during the 1949-76 Communist era under Mao, but returned in 1979 when his successors allowed a semi-free market economy and some freedom of expression. Then in 1989, the dangers of projecting US ideals too quickly onto China were again made clear during the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
In coming months, the US will be making big decisions on China, from selling arms to Taiwan to backing Beijing's bid to host the Olympics to a planned visit by Mr. Bush. The most immediate issue is the return of the EP-3 surveillance aircraft.
In all this, the US must beware its historical expectation of quickly changing the world's most populous nation while also avoiding the other danger that treating it as an enemy could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Helping China through its difficult transitions remains a worthwhile goal for the US, but only with a deep understanding of the differences between the two nations.
The best approach, as Mr. Bush said, is to deal with the differences "in a spirit of respect."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor