President, and presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan came home from China this past week with his foreign policies in relatively defensible condition and ready for the campaign season ahead.
Foreign policy seldom proves decisive in a United States election, but it can be damaging. Jimmy Carter was hurt by the hostage crisis. Had he avoided that event or had he successfully rescued the hostages themselves he might have won a second term.
Ronald Reagan has no similar liability. True, he has had only one political success out of foreign policy, the invasion of Grenada. His attempt to shape the political future of Lebanon was a failure. But it was not the kind of failure that gives the political opposition ammunition. Few votes, if any, will fall against Mr. Reagan because he withdrew the US Marines from Lebanon.
He has failed to open serious negotiations with the Soviets over nuclear weapons limits. But he can claim he tried, and that the Soviet withdrawal from the talks proved their intransigence, not his reluctance. The Democrats will find it difficult to get much mileage out of that.
Mr. Reagan's most dangerous and potentially vulnerable foreign policy has been his military buildup in Central America. If it leads to US troops in combat , he will lose votes. Recent public opinion polls show that Americans are almost 2 to 1 in opposition to US military intervention in Central America.
The reverse possibility would also be damaging. Reagan would be a political loser if the civil war in El Salvador went decisively against the government after, and in spite of, three years of US subsidies and support. Mr. Reagan would try to blame it all on Congress, but could not escape blame entirely for having tried.
The trip to China was an undoubted political plus for him. He received hours of favorable television exposure while his Democratic rivals were seen in undignified wrangles with one another. The trip shielded Reagan from possible political attack. Had he failed to go to China, he would have been open to the charge of pushing China back into the arms of Moscow.
The foreign policy substance of the trip was less than the political publicity. Reagan's eagerness to strengthen China-US ties gave China the opportunity to take up the middle position between Washington and Moscow.
On the day Reagan arrived in China, the Soviet news agency Tass announced that the Soviet first deputy prime minister, Ivan Arkhipov, would arrive in Peking on May 10 - at the Chinese government's invitation.
This reverses what happened in 1972 when President Richard Nixon went to China and reopened US relations with that country after a 23-year break. Immediately after that, Mr. Nixon went to Moscow. In 1972, Soviet-Chinese ties were in a condition of acute and even active hostility. The US gained the balancing position between them by being on equal terms with both.
This time Reagan cannot go from Peking to Moscow. His overtures for such a visit have been ignored. So China receives him, but follows up his visit by receiving the highest-ranking Soviet to visit China in 15 years.
But it will not be surprising if Arkhipov's visit is followed eventually by a formal resumption of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Peking. In that case, China will be in the balancing position that Nixon won for the US in 1972 and that Reagan discarded in 1981.
However, the above is too fine a point for election-year politics. What matters is that Reagan visited Peking. No Democrat can score off Reagan for having done that. His main concern in foreign affairs now is Central America. The situation there is fluid and could go sour for him before election day. But on the whole, Reagan enters the political season with his foreign policies in safer shape than Carter enjoyed four years ago.