The visits of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang to Washington beginning today and President Ronald Reagan to Beijing in April could mark an important stage in the process of consolidating Sino-American political and economic ties - if the visits go off smoothly.
The agreement on this exchange of leaders was a result of a significant upturn in Sino-American relations that began last spring, following two years of deterioration.
The US decision to liberalize policy on technology transfers to China, communicated to Beijing in May, was a turning point. It was soon followed by a compromise agreement on textile trade, arrangements for Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's visit to Beijing, and finally the decision to schedule visits by Zhao and Reagan.
Both Washington and Beijing view the prospective Zhao/Reagan visits as events of great symbolic significance. Even though two previous presidents made trips to China, and Deng Xiaoping (China's foremost leader in fact if not in title) visited Washington, an exchange of visits between a Chinese premier and an American president is, in a very real sense, unprecedented. No Chinese of comparable formal rank has come to the US, and the decision by Ronald Reagan - widely viewed as the least enthusiastic of recent presidents about close US-China ties - underlines the continuity of the US government's commitment to strengthening Sino-American ties.
The visits, if successful, should help to renew a high-level Sino-American dialogue on major international issues, of the kind that was developed in the 1970s but has been notably lacking in recent years.
The major immediate objective of the Zhao/Reagan visits, however, should be to repair and strengthen bilateral relations, which is a prerequisite for cooperation on broad international issues. The starting point for this must be sensitivity and moderation by both sides in the management of the Taiwan issue. This will require further US assurances and actions to convince Chinese leaders that Washington will implement the August 1982 communique. It will also require recognition by Beijing that if it now tries to press Washington to go beyond the 1982 agreement, the result is more likely to be a setback in US-China relations than progress toward Chinese long-term goals.
The focus of the visits should not be on military-strategic issues nor the Taiwan issue but on how best to expand bilateral economic cooperation, the area in which there is at present the greatest potential for broadening ties.
A major effort should be made to complete negotiations already under way on investment protection, coopera-tion in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, avoidance of double taxation, and broad industrial and technical cooperation.
Additional steps should be taken to expand and place on a sustainable long-term basis the two-way exchange of students, scholars, scientists, and technicians.
The US government should take a variety of unilateral steps to underline its desire to promote economic ties and assist China in its modernization.
It should ensure that China's exports to the US, including exports of labor-intensive goods such as textiles, receive ''fair'' treatment. If the current request by the US textile industry results in the imposition of countervailing duties against Chinese textiles, the Chinese could well retaliate economically and political relations could again go sour.
It is also essential that US leaders, from President Reagan down, ensure that the new US guidelines on technology exports to China adopted in November are translated into action.
More broadly, US leaders - and especially President Reagan - must try to indicate convincingly to the Chinese that the US is strongly committed to play a major supportive role in China's long-term modernization program, both to strengthen Sino-American economic ties, political relations, and common security interests, and to contribute to East Asian and global stability.
Progress toward these objectives will be possible only if leaders in both Beijing and Washington view the task of cementing overall relations as so important that they must take a long-term view and not allow short-term disputes and irritations to undermine the visits.
Recently one cause of uncertainty has been the new dispute over the possibility of countervailing duties on Chinese textiles. Imposition of such duties by the US would not only be considered by the Chinese to be grossly ''unfair,'' it also would damage many US interests. Chinese retaliation, however , would in no way contribute to any solution of the problem.
Another cloud appeared when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution calling for Taiwan's future to be ''settled peacefully, free of coercion.'' Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang warned that, if the US reply to China's protest was ''not satisfactory,'' then ''we'll have to reconsider whether to proceed with the exchange of visits.''
This was followed by another congressional measure recommending that Taiwan remain in the Asian Development Bank after the seating of China. In response, Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian once again raised doubts about the Zhao and Reagan visits.
These two congressional actions were damaging to US-China relations, and, after Beijing's protests, President Reagan publicly dissociated himself from them. However, Beijing's protests seemingly ignored the fact that congressional resolutions of this kind do not represent official US government foreign-policy actions.
Both sides still have much to learn about how to manage what is an extroardinarily complex relationship.
In early December, Beijing finally confirmed that the Zhao trip was ''on.'' It is now essential to ensure that it succeeds, so the Reagan trip to China can also take place as scheduled. One can only hope that neither side will allow the latest issues to undermine the trips, and that, instead, leaders of both countries will give priority to the overriding need for good-faith efforts to strengthen economic and political relations, which clearly is in the long-term interests of both countries.