THOUGH THE Cold War need to hedge in the old Soviet Union no longer draws the United States and China together, these two great nations have a mutual interest in engagement, not containment. Disputes of deep moral and strategic significance between two very different societies are inevitable. They can also be healthy if they help each nation define itself while the rest of the world watches and learns.
Before President Clinton's meeting with President Jiang Zemin this week, Washington had enraged Beijing by allowing Taiwan's president to make a private visit here in June, a gesture that the mainland Communists interpreted as an affront to the "one China" policy both countries supposedly accept. China had imprisoned a naturalized American citizen, Harry Wu, for agitating for human rights during a visit to his homeland, thus inflaming Americans still furious about the Tiananmen Square massacre. In retrospect, it can be seen that both governments grossly underestimated the adverse reactions these incidents would cause.
The New York summit did not ease U.S. opposition to China's entry into the World Trade Organization until it stops pirating U.S. intellectual property. It did not obtain China's agreement on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty due next year. But this standoff also did not preclude trade-offs in the months ahead.
Both powers need to show greater sensitivity on issues that matter deeply to one another. Their economies become more deeply intertwined each passing day. The security of Asia depends on their cooperation. The triangular U.S.-China-Russia relationship is key to worldwide control of nuclear weaponry. There is hardly any issue of global significance that does not demand mutual wisdom and good sense.
If the Clinton-Jiang meeting does nothing else, it should make each leader aware that there are certain principles on which they will not retreat. The United States will not abandon human rights and democracy. China will not abandon its assertion of sovereignty over all territories it claims. But neither should these two presidents let domestic critics eager to exploit such differences harm a relationship that needs constant care and attention.