THIS IS a remarkable day in the Reagan administration's foreign policy. Two senior officials, Vice President George Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz, are flying to opposite points on the globe--Mr. Bush to Europe, Mr. Shultz to China by way of Japan--essentially for the same purpose: to try to gain back ground lost during the administration's first two years. A more graphic acknowledgment of earlier difficulties and a more earnest attempt to take remedial action are hard to imagine. And what greater measure of devotion to the public weal can there possibly be than for people who could have had tickets to miss the Super Bowl?
There is an edge of irony to the missions. Mr. Reagan came to the White House pledging to restore confidence in American leadership. At least in Europe, however, the assertive and often casual nature of some of the words spoken and the measures taken in the name of restoring confidence, eroded confidence. One result was that there is now serious question whether--on the key issue of missile deployment--the European allies will be able to hold to their earlier word.
Mr. Bush has the nice task of projecting his chief's firmness and reasonableness at the same time and also of ensuring that these two elements are received in the proper separate mixtures by the allies, by the Soviets and by assorted Americans back home. Is he not trying to do something entirely inconsistent? Political leaders always are having to deal with crosscutting requirements of this sort. The vice president seems to us just the right man-- positive, experienced, political--to satisfy the allies' real craving for a strong and sensible American lead. He is not in Europe to negotiate, in the sense of sitting at a table, although he will look in on the Euromissile talks in Geneva. But these talks have become increasingly sensitive to the sentiment of the gallery. Here Mr. Bush can have an important calming effect.
You might have thought that the anti-Soviet quotient of the Reagan foreign policy would have been sweet music to Peking's ears, sweet enough perhaps to ease the principal Chinese-American cares. But the administration's special interest in Taiwan has strained Peking's nerves and, it seems, armed those in the leadership who may have had doubts from the start about the worth and durability of the American connection. That may be some part of the explanation for China's readiness to resume political talks with the Soviet Union.
In any event, what the Chinese are probably always most interested in finding in Washington is steadiness, control and an understanding of their special requirements. These qualities, essential to put Sino-American relations on a solid long-term basis, have not been notable characteristics of the Reagan foreign policy, least of all of the Reagan China policy, in the past two years.
Again, we suggest, the conservative, thoughtful George Shultz is the right man to speak to the Chinese, and to listen to the Chinese, right now. Some tricky current questions of technology transfer and trade have to be sorted out, and these questions and the Taiwan issue, which has received more than enough agitation in the last year or so, need to be kept from getting in the way of more important considerations in Sino-American relations.
These more important considerations center on the two countries' common interest in their security and international cooperation. The span of formal Sino- American relations has been brief and bumpy, and it may well take some further years for "normalization" to become truly normal--for the misperceptions, misconceptions and unwarranted expectations to be wrung out of the relationship. Continuing high-level consultations can makeit happen sooner.
No doubt the twin diplomatic expeditions that the president now has on the road will be taken by some as evidence of failure, panic and even of a changing of course in his international policy. We find that a gross exaggeration. Events have shown a requirement for a certain adjustment. What a determined critic might rightly have held him accountable for would have been keeping Mr. Bush and Mr. Shultz at home.