WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his top aides have shelved their campaign to patch up the once-cozy U.S. relationship with China, reluctantly conceding that China's political upheavals of 1989 have caused lasting damage to ties between the two countries.
Twelve months ago, China ranked as one of the main preoccupations of the Bush administration. Last Dec. 9, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger flew off on a secret mission to Beijing in which they offered friendly toasts to some of the same Chinese leaders who had called in troops six months earlier to clear protesters from Tiananmen Square with brute force.
Now, by contrast, the administration is maintaining a cool distance from Beijing. Administration officials no longer treat China as so important to the United States as it was a year ago, and some of them remain miffed over what they see as a failure of the Chinese leadership to respond to Bush's overtures.
"Their [Chinese leaders'] failure to continue to be responsive to the president has changed the political landscape," one administration official acknowledged recently.
"All of our allies have decided to move ahead with China, leaving us increasingly isolated," observed Harry Harding, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution.
There are a several reasons underlying the Bush administration's pronounced change of attitude:
* Domestic politics. Bush's efforts last year to mend fences with the leadership in Beijing proved extremely unpopular and were attacked both by Democrats and conservative Republicans. In Congress and in the American business community, there has been a marked decline in support for close U.S. ties with China.
* Instability in China. Many U.S. policy-makers believe that China's current leadership is deeply divided and won't last long. Indeed, some officials and analysts now foresee the possibility of dramatic political changes or even a coup d'etat in the struggle for power that may follow the death of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
* Bitterness over the failed Scowcroft trip. Last December and January, Bush administration officials believed the Chinese regime would quickly allow dissident Fang Lizhi to leave his confinement inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and would end its ideological attacks on the United States. Instead, Fang was not released for another six months, and the ideological diatribes continue even now.