If the Clinton administration seemed less than fervent when it flung a boomerang at China last week, it had good reason. Its ban on the sale of U.S.-made space technology to Beijing in retaliation for China's shipment of missile components to Pakistan will impact financially only on American firms. They will lose half a billion dollars in annual sales that others will be happy to pick up.
Knowing of these adverse repercussions, officials emphasized they were acting only because existing laws forced them to do so. The body language seemed to convey a dual message: that Congress ought to reconsider current statutes and that China need not take more than pro-forma offense.
This does not mean the administration is casual about the proliferation of nuclear weaponry and the means to deliver it. One of its top priorities is open-ended renewal of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on its 25th anniversary in 1995. Another is strengthening of the Missile Technology Control Regime that China is accused of violating in its arms trafficking with Pakistan.
If the big powers are to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, the U.S. and China cannot work at cross-purposes. China's pressure will be crucial if North Korea is to be forced to permit inspections of its weapons-capable nuclear installations. Its support will be important on renewal of the NPT. Its willingness to give up profitable arms sales to the likes of Iran and Iraq is a worthy objective, alas far from being achieved. And its forebearance will be necessary as the United States continues to violate its pledge not to sell state-of-the-art military equipment, especially F-16 jets, to Taiwan.
Strain in the relationship is reflected in China's warning it may rescind its commitment to a missile-control agreement it denies having violated. On the latter, the U.S. intelligence community is divided, as Washington keeps former Secretary of State James Baker's undertakings secret.
The U.S. is trying to isolate the dispute over missile technology sales. It renewed normal "most favored nation" trade relations with the Beijing regime last spring despite its dreadful human rights record. It has just lifted restrictions on computer sales. And it has kept its lines to Beijing on nuclear arms questions wide open despite the missile dispute and the latest furor over suspected Chinese shipments of chemical weapons material to Iran.
Friction is bound to be on-going in U.S. relations with the world's most populous nation. But the China trade is booming as Beijing enjoys an $18 billion surplus it will not lightly jeopardize and American companies salivate at the thought of future profits in a vast and booming Chinese market. This is a situation made to order for subtlety, nuance, distortion and hypocrisy -- in other words, the ordinary workings of diplomacy.