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MUCH PATIENCE REQUIRED IN TRYING TO DEAL WITH CHINA

China is the world's most populous nation. And though largely still undeveloped in an economic sense, it also has the potential to be one of the world's richest nations, a trading partner without peer.

Under the circumstances, the United States is justified for many reasons in seeking a stable, friendly relationship with this restless giant. Yet U.S.-Sino ties have sunk, if not into crisis, at least into a simmering sense of antagonism and distrust.A meeting in Brunei recently between U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his Chinese counterpart was an attempt to stem the tide of suspicion and disagreement.

The meeting appeared to be a success in the sense that nobody walked away in outrage. Unfortunately, China is a communist dictatorship, with all the oppression and flaws inherent in such a system. The vast nation also is a potential threat to its Asian neighbors. And it sells missiles and other dangerous weapons to unstable regimes. Above all, it is sensitive and downright xenophobic about suspected plots and slights to Chinese pride and position.

Dealing with China is like walking through a mine field. One never knows when a wrong step will precipitate a crisis of some kind. Elaborate courtesy, caution and protocol are necessary, even when confronted with blatant Chinese evils or violations of human rights. Americans don't usually have the patience or restraint for this frustrating diplomatic dance.

Two expelled American officers - based at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong - were accused of taking pictures in restricted military zones in China's southeast coastal area.

That charge, true or not, is reminiscent of the games once played with the Soviets, a way of expressing frustrations and displeasure by expelling a few officials. In any case, the episode is not terribly important except as a barometer of U.S.-China relations.

More disturbing is the case of Harry Wu, a Chinese-born American citizen and human rights dissident arrested in June on his return to China and charged with espionage, a ludicrous charge on its face. China has rebuffed attempts to negotiate Wu's freedom.

Human rights issues are important and cannot simply be ignored, despite extreme Chinese sensitivities.

The root of China's frustration is the invitation last May to grant a visa to Taiwan's President Lee Tend-hui to attend a class reunion at Cornell University, his alma mater.

Chinese leaders insist that Taiwan is part of "one China" and vigorously protest any official recognition of Taiwanese leaders, such as the granting of visas to visit the United States.

Clearly, China cannot be allowed to dictate what the United States can or cannot do, especially since Taiwan is a democratic, prosperous nation in its own right.

Taiwan, human rights and other issues are going to be sticking points for a long time.

Good relations with China are vital and Washington will need to exercise patience. But the search for good relations doesn't mean that the United States must abandon basic American principles.

Hang tough. Keep talking. Be consistent. Encourage without dictating. Those approaches seem to be the only way to successfully deal with China. A long road must still be traveled.