London. -- A new Cold War between America and China? Preposterous though it seems, this is the in-talk among many professional China watchers.
For 24 years, since Nixon's visit to Beijing, China has been America's de facto ally. How then, asks this man in the street, can it get so bad so quickly?
Nothing going on today on the human rights front can compare with the massacre at Tiananmen Square five years ago -- which the Bush administration judged so inconsequential that National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft was sent to Beijing soon after to assure the murderers that the American relationship was intact.
How can it be, too, that there is such an almighty fuss over the current "revelation" that M16 medium-range missiles have been sold to Pakistan when all this was known and discussed two years ago and long-range, nuclear warhead-carrying missiles were sold to Saudi Arabia seven years ago with barely a bad word said in public?
Is it, on Beijing's side, Taiwan, just because its president was given a one-off visa to visit his American alma mater? Or because Newt Gingrich sounded off about recognizing Taiwan even though he could never deliver on that?
These are pin-pricks compared with President George Bush's decision to sell Taiwan state-of-the-art F-16 fighter aircraft in clear violation of a formal American commitment not to.
Is it some awful crisis of Realpolitik that has come to a head in the Security Council? Well, then, tell us the last time China used its veto. No other heavyweight country outside America's immediate circle of intimate allies has done more to oblige Washington on crucial United Nations votes.
Perhaps it is just something we missed -- like Washington's aggravating decision to stand full-square behind Hong Kong's governor, Chris Patten, in his belated effort to introduce democracy before the Union Jack is run down in two years time.
But for an administration that should realize instinctively that Hong Kong could be the Trojan Horse of democracy, it has in reality done precious little to give Mr. Patten the support he deserves.
And what fuss did Washington make when Mr. Patten climbed down on the make-up of Hong Kong's court of final appeal? Beijing should have been encouraged to see that an independent court is an essential prerequisite if Hong Kong is going to remain the region's preeminent financial center.
Is it, then, this never ending quarrel over China's trade surplus with America? But that's a flea-bite compared with Japan's and the administration has finally learned, even with Tokyo, that unilateral confrontation wins only meager results.
Yet convulsion between Washington and Beijing clearly is real -- Beijing has withdrawn its ambassador and Henry Kissinger writes of "the possibility . . . of the present rift becoming a long-standing adversarial relationship."
Yet the reasons for it do not add up -- unless one concludes that we are dealing with two rather weak governments who are thus unable, as were Ronald Reagan and Deng Xiaoping, to keep the big picture in view. Unfortunately, that must be it.
Not much can be done from outside to rectify the weaknesses in Beijing's leadership, at least not until Deng Xiaoping is dead and buried and China settles its leadership question and gets on top of an imploding regional and public order crisis.
China is insecure, and thus over Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Spratly Islands and arms sales it is going through a period of being dangerously assertive. In such a situation, it is doubly important that American policy stay on both a firm and a straight course.
It was a serious mistake for President Bush to sell Taiwan war planes, and it was an equally serious mistake for President Bill Clinton to overturn a long-standing policy of tying periodic human rights reviews to China's Most Favored Nation trade status.
Both sent the wrong signals, in the first case that America's stance on Taiwan was beginning to change, which has now led to the ridiculous, if understandable, charge that America seeks to "contain" China. In the second case, it gave Beijing the conviction that its human rights behavior was up for negotiation, which leads not to less wrangles but more, as one can see over the Harry Wu case.
This was foreign policy folly made by Washington's most recent incumbents. President Clinton needs to stop and think, and probably get on a plane to Beijing and show that America is, after all, a friend and that these disputes can be settled amicably.
Congress, in particular the Taiwan faction, needs to calm its rhetoric and leave well enough alone.
If Taiwan just continues, as it has the last few years, with its remarkable economic progress and its steady increase in political stature it need not be encouraged to rock the boat by suddenly hoisting sail and trying to tack away from its present position. It is not becalmed and the present winds are in its long-term favor.
Cold War? If the "China professionals" really think this is a possibility, they could lobby for one more thing -- an announcement that the White House has ordered the cessation of F-16 deliveries to Taiwan.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.