WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Was James Baker's trip to China a failure? Neither the Chinese nor the Americans made any significant concessions, though some valuable compromises on transfer of nuclear technology, copyright protection and prison-labor exports may have been reached.
That there remains uncertainty regarding what the Chinese actually agreed to reflects Chinese disinclination to surrender freedom of action and the probable necessity of brokering adherence of the military to politically determined policies. Given this muddled outcome was the administration right in risking further disenchantment of the American press, Congress and the public?
American disillusionment and Chinese suspicion are not auspicious grounds upon which to repair a relationship battered by conflicts over human rights, trade and arms sales.
China fears an unbalanced world in which, it believes, the United States alone remains a superpower. It distrusts a U.S. government that claims to have shattered Soviet socialism and appears to be targeting Beijing for ''peaceful evolution'' to democracy, capitalism and dependency. Beijing could not but be alarmed by irresponsible talk in America about economic union between southeastern China, Hong Kong and Taiwan leading to political separatism and a new version of an American ''two Chinas'' policy reminiscent of John Foster Dulles.
But as important as allaying Chinese apprehensions may be, it is also essential to rectify the widespread American feeling that President George Bush has been conducting an unrequited love affair with Beijing.
The heart of the problem appears to be the end of the Cold War and an as yet undeveloped new world order. America and China suddenly have to deal on a purely bilateral basis without the impetus provided by Cold War threats from the Soviet Union. Absent strategic cooperation against Moscow, the necessity for overlooking each other's flaws disappears.
To Americans in Congress and on the streets, the Beijing spring of 1989 suggested China was remaking itself in our image. That vision was brutally smashed by the Tiananmen massacre. Most Americans do not know and probably would not believe that few demonstrators on the square wanted to replace communism with multi-party democracy or that economic imbalances brought about by Deng Xiaoping's reform program generated much of the popular anger. Stability today remains a more important principle than change among the majority of Chinese fearful of sparking turmoil such as the Soviet Union is presently enduring.
The administration, therefore, must do a better job of educating both Americans and Chinese. The president has rarely articulated his reasons for a China policy that has seemed to many to be too soft on Beijing. He did not voice effectively U.S. indignation in 1989 and he has not explained persuasively why in 1991, little having been altered, China should be accorded a visit by the secretary of state. Similarly he has not convinced the Chinese that friendship demands mutual benefit and that, therefore, China must not aspire to huge trade surpluses or try to strangle joint scholarly projects and academic exchange.
There will not be easy solutions. Americans are wrong to try to remedy all problems with comprehensive and potentially destructive measures. Eliminating most-favored-nation treatment PTC would not be a relevant or effective lever for encouraging human-rights practices. Moreover, loss of access to the American market would harm precisely the sector of China's economy whose development is in American interests.
Any improvement in Sino-American relations will take patience from Americans and sincerity from the Chinese. Arresting the journalist Dai Qing during Mr. Baker's visit so that she could not discuss human rights with his aides only highlighted an issue the leadership prefers to ignore and encouraged American critics to focus on such abuses.
The approaching anniversary of Pearl Harbor should remind us that Asia can be a dangerous place if two societies misunderstand each other's motives, interests and cultural imperatives. Americans underestimated Japanese capabilities and discounted their sense of isolation and vulnerability in the 1930s. The Japanese, for their part, were misled by American political and economic disarray to believe that a surprise attack could convince the United States to turn inward and leave Asia to them. There must not be similar misperceptions today between Washington and Beijing.
Secretary Baker's trip will have been a failure if the Chinese conclude that compromises need only be small, given grudgingly and later reneged upon. It will also be a failure if the administration does not clarify what the United States has to gain or lose in improving relations with China. With the new world order in flux it would seem that both Washington and Beijing must do more to understand each other and establish common ground upon which to restore constructive engagement.
Nancy Bernkopf Tucker teaches in the School of Foreign Service and History Department at Georgetown University.