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US May Strengthen Fragile China Ties

But a tangle of issues makes the task tougher

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The passing of Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping has occurred at a time when the complex relationship between China and the United States faces an unprecedented period of potential confrontations.

From the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, to the growing US trade deficit with Beijing, to allegations of Chinese money in US politics, a series of delicate issues could challenge Sino-American ties in 1997. Whether the absence of Deng affects them remains to be seen - but together they surely represent one of President Clinton's foremost foreign policy challenges.

In fact, dealing with the dragon in the East might well develop into the most important diplomatic job for a generation of US chief executives to come. China's economy is growing about as fast an an economy ever has, and will be bigger than that of the US in a few decades. Chinese-made goods fill the shelves of US stores, to the point that China may have replaced Japan as America's biggest trade problem.

Beijing's regional political clout is similarly increasing, and its military spending is on the rise, as well. In sum, China is making itself into a superpower at just the time America sees itself as the only superpower left in the world. Top US diplomats have long talked about the need to be more Asia-oriented in their outlook. China alone may soon compel more of their attention.

"One of the problems in the Sino-American relationship has been that the Chinese don't understand why they're not more important to us, given how important we are to them," says Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a China expert at Georgetown University here. "They sometimes think we must be deceiving them."

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