Does a state visit - even an important one - always need to be built around some claimed breakthrough in relations between the countries concerned?
Isn't it enough of a benefit for China's President Jiang Zemin that, with China's human-rights situation barely improved since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, President Clinton should invite him to the White House - without the administration also hoping to claim a breakthrough in talks on nuclear proliferation?
At stake is the US-China Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, concluded during the last US-China summit in Washington, in 1985. Before that agreement was ever ratified, Congress attached a condition mandating the president give prior certification that China gives no direct or indirect help to other nations developing nuclear-weapons programs. It is this certification administration insiders indicate may be made during this month's summit.
There remain significant doubts over the validity of this judgment. True, Beijing has announced that it will not make any further shipments of nuclear materials to unsafeguarded facilities in such countries.
But it has not decided to stop making any shipments at all to countries having such facilities. So the government in, say, Pakistan, could still obtain nuclear-relevant materials from China ostensibly for use in a safeguarded research reactor, and then divert them into its secret weapons program.
But top aides in the White House are reported to be eager to mark President Jiang's visit with some "breakthrough" in relations.
And since the administration has gotten nothing notable enough to be called a "breakthrough" in all its talks with Beijing on either human rights or the outstanding trade issues, attention has shifted to nonproliferation.
If China does win the expected certification, there will be cheers from most of the U.S. nuclear industry. With the Chinese economy steaming full speed ahead, Beijing is expected to invest some $60 billion in developing its nuclear power industry over the next 25 years. Chinese managers will seek many of the relevant technologies abroad - but until the White House provides the certification Congress asked for, US companies will still be barred from competing for their orders.
But hang on a minute. Competing in China's nuclear-energy market may be good for some US corporations and their employees, but would it really bring such benefits to broader US interests as to warrant a rush to certification at this time?
Our economy has been doing well enough without having access to this questionable market. The administration could probably get much firmer terms from the Chinese if it did not signal that it badly wants this deal, with this degree of hurry. And if the spotlight is taken off the nonproliferation issue, that would allow more space in the talks for other subjects that also matter greatly, like human rights and freedoms, and the rule of law in China.
More than 300 of the dissidents from Tiananmen are still in prison.
Under the "Strike Hard" campaign launched last year, China's Communist rulers have put huge pressures on the judiciary to clamp down on any deviants from the party line. Amnesty International recorded more than 3,500 executions in China in 1996 - a rate that seems to continue.
Also the presidents of the world's two near-continent-sized powers will need to discuss situations of common concern: the possible implosion in North Korea, stability in Cambodia, and the tone of US-Chinese relations in East Asia. These are all serious and potentially explosive topics. It is probably right for President Clinton to break the eight-year silence to have these discussions back at the summit level.
But he does not need to give President Jiang the benefit of an easy ride on nuclear exports. Or come to that, on any of the topics of high US concern.
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.