BEIJING and Washington soon will mark the 20th anniversary of Henry Kissinger's secret journey of reconciliation to China. Only there is nothing to celebrate. In a drama barely noticed, Chinese actions are tearing apart ties with the U.S.
China no longer matters much strategically as Soviet-American rivalry recedes. Its tired leaders cruelly clutch on to power. They flout American concerns in shady trade practices and huge trade surpluses, slave labor camps, Tibet, human rights violations and sales of particularly dangerous weapons.
Congress is fed up with China's performance and seems poised to impose trade sanctions. President Bush, micromanager of policy toward the Middle Kingdom, fought fiercely and prevented congressional retaliation last year. Beijing is obviously hoping he will rescue it again. But it is far from clear that he will or can -- or should.
China's leaders had almost two years to shape up since their bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Yet they threw Bush, their great protector, only a few bones: an abstention in the U.N. vote to authorize force against Iraq, and the release of political prisoners (though providing no list).
Bones aside, Chinese exporters brought on a trade crisis. They refused to protect U.S. patents and copyrights and resisted American access to their markets.
They transshipped goods through Hong Kong to hide their origin. They continued to use prisoners and "ex-prisoners" as slave labor to lower the price of exports.
By such means, they overcame years of modest U.S. surpluses. But in 1990, China's trade surplus with the U.S. leaped to $10.4 billion. This year experts predict that gap will jump to at least $15 billion, ranking China's trade advantage over the U.S. behind only Japan and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Chairman Li Peng and associates meted out harsh sentences to student democratic leaders. They also continued to execute workers demanding political rights, while Westerners hardly raised a murmur compared with their outrage over jailed intellectuals.
The old gang went on with the systematic destruction of Tibetan identity. Bush, to the chagrin of Chinese leaders, broke recent precedent and met with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader and national symbol. Bush may have been aiming at Americans charging him with insensitivity about the Kurds, but Beijing got the message anyway.
Chinese leaders also startled Washington by secretly helping Algeria to build a nuclear reactor. Like North Korea's, it is too small to generate electricity profitably and too large for research, but just right to make material for nuclear weapons.
Pressured to explain, Beijing announced that the reactor would be for "peaceful uses" and subject to international inspection. But Chinese leaders still have not honored a months-old administration request for a thorough private explanation.
China also persisted in playing games with missile sales. U.S. intelligence recently found that Pakistan has started constructing mobile launchers apparently for the Chinese M-11 missile.
Its range falls short of agreed international limits, but could be extended. China has not signed on to these limits, but has indicated it would comply with them.
While administration officials are unhappy about all these subterfuges, they are loath to slap down China hard. They do not quite know what their boss in the White House wants. So, their inclination is to stress quiet diplomacy and a long-term process of rebuilding relations.
To Sen. Joe Biden, a key player in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that is not nearly tough enough. He calls China "a rogue elephant on weapons proliferation" and threatens to take away what China needs most from America -- its trading privileges as a most favored nation.
It would be foolish to isolate China as Washington did from 1950 until the fateful Kissinger trip of August 1971. But strong action RTC along the lines of the Biden approach, perhaps a conditional extension of trading status, is called for.
Bush should have learned one thing from his experience with Saddam Hussein and with Chinese leaders: Coddling dictators to moderate their behavior does not work.
Better for the U.S. to vehemently defend its interests, and let diplomatic contacts and trade slip to lower levels -- until new, more promising leaders gain power in Beijing.