Ronald Reagan's credibility in the conduct of foreign policy has been seriously impaired by his contretemps with Peking over Taiwan. This is the view of diplomatic observers here who have watched with bemusement (and some symphaty) the disastrous course of the visit of Mr. Reagan's running mate, George Bush.
Every time Mr. Bush, in that New England twang softened by the Texas sun, tried to tell his hosts that Mr. Reagan didn't really mean what he had been saying about Taiwan, the candidate himself, back in the United States, stubbornly kept repeating that, well, yes, he did mean it.
Messrs. REagan and Bush are holding a joint press conference in Los Angeles Aug. 25 immediately after Mr. Bush's return to the United States. Perhaps they can offer a convincing and consistent joint explanation at that time.
Meanwhile, however, the Chinese have delivered a stinging attack on Mr. Reagan's attitude toward Taiwan. They have also characterized the Republican campaign platform plank on Taiwan as going against the political principles embodied in the Sino-American joint communique establishing full diplomatic relations between the two countries. That communique read: "The United States of America recognizes the government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan."
While denying any wish to take sides in the present US election campaign and emphasizing that the improvement of Sino-American relations has been carried on by both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Chinese have made it clear that a Reagan ties if he continues to try to restore "official relations" with Taiwan.
What puzzles observers here is that Mr. Reagan has not ridden into battle as a knight in white armor upholding the brave anticommunist Taiwan government against the terrible Chinese communists. Rather, Mr. Reagan says (and this is the point Mr. Bush tried so desperately to get across here) that he wants to improve relations with Peking.
He thinks the United States and China can find common ground in recognizing the need to resist global Soviet expansionism. He is not averse to increasing trade with China. But on Taiwan he wants to upgrade present unofficial relations conducted through congressionally funded institutes to some sort of official relationship.
Exactly what kind of official relationship, he will not say. Confusingly, he insists that this can be done within the limits of the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress last year. Here Mr. Bush has politely but openly disagreed with Mr. Reagan, saying that the Taiwan relations Act allows only "nongovernmental" relations.
To the layman the difference between "nongovernmental" and "unofficial" is arcane. The Republicans could conceivably come up with a formula that, while remaining within the framework specified by the Taiwan Relations Act, would give a more "official" character to the American presence in Taiwan.
The significance of th sizzling attacks in the People's Daily Aug. 23 and 24 against the Reagan stance is that, whatever formula the Republicans devise, China will have none of it. Furthermore, in the view of third-country diplomats here, it is a pointless exercise, because Taiwan will not thereby gain any substantive benefits.
This is not a question of more trade, or more investment, or any increment of security (such as the Carter administration's plan to permit military aircraft sales to Taiwan, a plan China also opposes). It will simply give Taiwan some slight additional prestige, at the cost, however, of incalculable damage to the much more globally important American relationship with Peking.
To Peking, the indivisibility of China and its sovereignty over all China, including Taiwan is a matter of principle that cannot be compromised. Establishing some sort of "official" relations with Taiwan means, in Peking's eyes, moving toward recognition of Taiwan as a separate state.
Said the People's Daily Aug. 23: "Reagan argued that China had misunderstood his remarks and that he did not mean to create 'two Chinas.' But who would believe it? To enter into 'governmental relations' or 'official relations' with Taiwan means to create 'two Chinas'. What other intepretation can there be?"
Sighed one Chinese participant in talks with Mr. Bush and his foreign policy adviser Richard V. Allen: "They just don't understand that we mean what we say."