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As relations between China and the United States keep deteriorating, Washington is under increasing pressure to get tougher with Beijing.

But there are sharp limits to what Washington can do about the bloody crackdown on student protesters in Beijing without doing more harm than good.Consider, for example, the problems with the major alternatives now said to be under discussion as Washington ponders possible steps beyond the present halt to American military sales to China.

How about imposing economic sanctions?

Though this is the traditional way of expressing international displeasure, it seldom has much effect except as a symbolic gesture. When one nation cuts off its trade with an outcast regime, other nations are all too willing to move in and fill the vacuum. Besides, the U.S.-China Business Council reports that many companies already are pulling their employees out of China. Future private investments already are either on hold or have been canceled.

What about cutting off just those sales from the United States to China involving high technology, now estimated at about $1 billion a year?

Though Washington insiders consider this the most likely step, it suffers from the same weaknesses as a broader economic boycott. Besides, there's something to the notion that with trade goes influence. By focusing on the elimination of transactions involving high technology, America could discard a chance to influence some of the most sophisticated segments of Chinese society.

Wouldn't halting grain sales inflict the most pain?

Possibly. But, as President Bush has repeatedly noted, those who would suffer the most would be the ordinary people of China, not their harsh leaders.

What, then, about calling off all cultural exchanges between the two countries and recalling the U.S. ambassador to China?

Again, though such moves are traditional, they seem pointless under present circumstances. For all practical purposes, Sino-American cultural exchanges already have ceased. As for recalling American ambassador James Lilley, such a move could give China an excuse to expel all our diplomatic personnel, depriving the United States of a valuable "listening post," and try to close the embassy now providing sanctuary for prominent Chinese dissidents Fang Lizhi and his wife, Li.

By no means should the United States stint on its condemnation of the brutal suppression of peaceful dissent in China. But the objective of America's moves should be reform, not punishment. This means that Washington and Beijing should keep in contact and keep talking.