It is ironic that on the very day President Reagan called communism "an aberration" his secretary of state announced possible arms sale to the People's Republic of China. No one would quarrel with the administration's logic for upgrading relations with China. The need to tame the bear is too real. But is it safe to base US-China relations on parallel strategic interests alone?
It is true that economic, cultural, and other exchanges have also gone ahead. But euphoria is yielding to coolheaded reevaluation. China's ability to pay and unwillingness to allow cultural "infiltration" are factors that loom large. There are profound differences in values (ideology) and social systeems -- differences with Chinese Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister Huang Hua did not hesitate to cite in his recent talks with Secretary Haig. These are the factors that will figure prominently in the long run.
The question, then, is how these differences should be handled. Time may take care of some of them, and it is time that we need as well as some realism. When Mao first evolved his "third world" theory, he placed the two superpowers pretty much on a par. Rapporchement was sought with the United States for the sole purpose of "taking advantage of contraditions that strike at the most dangerous enemy." It was argued that circumstances justified entering into alliance even with the devil himself.
Then China itself mellowed under Deng Xiaoping, and the US began to look less satanic. This is all to the good. But if complicates matters -- the picture is no longer black and white.
How far will China go with its reforms? No one really knows. But it would be unwise to underestimate the significance of the changes that are taking place in China. Efforts to reduce the party's role in government, upgrade the role of the legislature (the People's Congress), end life-long tenure of senior officials, and introduce the rule of law; granting a greater role for the market and autonomy for local authorities and enterprises; providing material incentives and the beginnings of meritocracy -- all these add up to a radical departure from the Stalinist-Maoist model.
On the other hand, it would also be rash to overestimate the changes. China still calls itself a dictatorship -- a "people's democratic dictatorship." And of course no political elite would reform itself to the point where it risks losing power.
The two systems are still miles apart. The Chinese argue for "seeking common ground while reserving differences," a realistic principle evolved by Chou En-lai, the late premier. Those social scientists who have rushed headlong into exchanges and who are getting disillusioned should realize that the best counsel is to go slow. Overexpectation is always dangerous.
But "reserving differences" should not be interpreted to mean noncommunication. There are people who would limit Sino-US relations to consultation and parallel action in containing the Soviets, while keeping cultural exchanges to a minimum so as to minimize "infiltration." So the art is to try and find a golden mean between overexpectation and inaction; between euphoria and disillusionment.
As to the Taiwan question, it is not a live issue. There is no crisis situation in the Taiwan Straits area. In fact, it has never been quieter. The people on that island are in no imminent danger of being invaded. They are doing rather well. So why make such a fuss about it?
Some Reaganites say, "It's good politics." While the people in Peking may "understand" US domestic politics, they will never swallow an affront simply because "they need us more than we need them." The real danger is that relations may sour without either side desiring it -- through fumbling.
It would be foolhardly to provoke Peking into a violent response that would inevitably escalate. So the best weay is to let the Taiwan issue sleep.