WASHINGTON -- At the Cold War's height, the United States and China joined forces a generation ago in opposition to the Soviet Union.
Then the Chinese government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989 ended what many U.S. analysts saw as a golden era in relations between the two countries. And when the Soviet Union fell apart two years later, it undercut the strategic basis for the Sino-American alliance.Given recent strains and long-standing differences, the United States and China could be embarking on their own brand of a creeping Cold War.
Washington's fights with Beijing cover nuclear espionage and weapons proliferation, market access and intellectual property protection, human rights and U.S. defense aid to Taiwan -- and errant bombs in Belgrade.
Relations are at their rockiest since the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, when the Chinese used tanks to put down pro-democracy demonstrations.
The bold vision of a Sino-American "strategic partnership," advanced by President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in visit exchanges, has given way, for now, to more modest expectations. The change follows the mistaken NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and the allegations by a House select committee of Chinese nuclear espionage at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories.
China was appalled by the attack on its embassy, which killed three Chinese citizens; many Americans are bewildered by China's refusal to accept that the bombing was a mistake.
The administration and the Congress also accuse China of being disingenuous in denying the spy allegations contained in the report of the House committee led by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif.
To some, the different perceptions of the embassy bombing, coupled with the espionage allegations, underscore the limitations of U.S.-Chinese relations.
The two events "were useful in lifting the blinders on some people's eyes as to what we're dealing with," says William Triplett, a China watcher and former chief Republican counsel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Triplett contends China is the world's No. 1 weapons proliferator. China's sales of weapons and missile technology to Iran, Syria and other countries proves Beijing's unwillingness to take U.S. interests into account, Triplett said.
He also opposes sales to China of American technology that, he says, helps China develop militarily.
China objects to the continuing U.S. defense ties with Taiwan and is suspicious about the U.S. military presence in East Asia. It also sees American pressure on human rights as threatening Beijing's stability.
American officials hope the current bitterness is temporary. To them, it is inconceivable not to strive for a stable relationship with a country that is both the world's most populous and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
A policy of non-engagement only would hasten mutual suspicions and sacrifice other goals, including nonproliferation.