President Reagan has endorsed a China policy that would have been unthinkable for him not so long ago. Despite some earlier zigs and zags and in the Reagan view of China during last year's presidential campaign, the President may now have a more coherent China policy than some of his critics would allow.
Reagan has clearly had to rethink both his hostility toward China and his sentimental attachment to Taiwan. Indeed, Reagan was at one time almost a symbol of support for Taiwan and hostility toward China.
The President's continuing support for Taiwan has yet to manifest itself in a concrete way. But despite allegations that he lacks a clear foreign policy, the part of that policy which relates to Peking does appear to be based on a coherent view of where the real danger to the United States lies. Secretary of State of Alexander M. Haig Jr. has made clear that in his view, that danger emanates from Moscow, not from Peking. Reagan seems to share that view.
Thus, like three previous administrations, the Reagan administration appears to support China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.
Some people argue that China's military forces are too weak to act as much of a counterweight. But senior administration officials do not buy that argument. They note that because of China, one-quarter of the Soviet Union's military forces are tied down along the Sino-Soviet border and in Mongolia.
In addition to this, it was recently revealed that under the Carter administration the US and China agreed to share information collected from two electronic monitoring stations. These stations provide the United States, among other things, with information on Soviet missile tests that can help the US verify whether the Soviets are adhering to arms control agreements.
Less well known is the fact that China is also helping to tie down Soviet-supported Vietnamese troops along the Vietnam-China border. A Chinese threat once again to "punish Vietnam" if necessary is believed by the Americans to be a major deterrent protecting pro-Western Thailand against the Vietnamese.
This much is clear to a number of Americans. What is not clear to many is what else the United States gets out of the relationship with China.
In order to understand that, one must imagine what Southeast Asia would be like if the Chinese were pursuing their support of regional insurgencies as vigorously as they once did. It is true that China does give some support, partly through a broadcasting station in China, to the mostly ethmic Chinese insurgents in Malaysia.
But State Department officials are convinced that China is for the most part of a nation which is now dedicated to stability in the region and peaceful, rather than a violent, change. That does not apply to Cambodia, of course, where the Chinese are supplying arms to Cambodian guerrillas fighting the Vietnamese. But in this case, the US agrees with the idea of resisting what the American officials regard as an unacceptable Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.
Few in this administration seem to have any illusions about trade with China developing into a major factor in the relationship any time in the near future. But some State Department officials think that the economic approach which China has been taking lately may not be all that far from what the Reagan administration itself desires.
As one senior American official explained it, the Chinese leaders are "very pragmatic."
"If you look at their internal economic program," the official said, "it is not devoid of parallels with our own fiscal responsibility, decentralization, and a lessening of centralized regulatory management."
There may be some wishful thinking involved in this view of Chinese economic reform. It does seem to reflect the sympathy which some officials in this administration feel for the Chinese.
These officials do not always agree with the views of the pioneers of America's new China policy, former President Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but they do seem to agree with one of Nixon's views, as described in Kissinger's memoirs, "The White House Years." According to Kissinger, Nixon believed that ending the isolation of China removed a great threat to peace.