When, within a few days, Bill Clinton meets with his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, at an international forum in New Zealand, it will be amid the greatest strain in Sino-American relations since diplomatic contact was reestablished in 1971.

Many in Washington perceive Beijing's reaction to the American attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade as deliberate fostering of anti-American sentiments, and the Chinese military buildup and human rights practices as challenges to basic American interests and values. The view from Beijing is that the bombing of its Belgrade embassy was deliberate and that denial of World Trade Organization membership, human-rights accusations and charges of espionage are symptoms of America's unwillingness to allow China to play a role on the world stage.

In this atmosphere, Taiwan's sudden and unilateral challenge to the existing political understandings in the Taiwan Strait -- at a time when a senior Beijing representative was preparing to visit Taipei for the first time -- is interpreted in Beijing as the culmination of an American plot to divide China. Chinese warnings of a possible military response have taken on a severity reminiscent of the prelude to the Chinese intervention in the Korean War in 1950. In turn, many in Washington consider these Chinese expressions of concern as pretexts for executing long-held designs. Amid such mutual incomprehension, conflict, even military conflict, could suddenly erupt.

Three high-level visits -- of Jiang to Washington, of Clinton to China and of Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Washington -- have accomplished little more than to assuage these trends. In each, atmospherics took precedence over substance, and in the Zhu visit American domestic politics blocked the conclusion of the WTO agreement that Zhu had been given reason to expect.

Some are fatalistic about this drift toward confrontation. Others compare the emergence of China to the rise of Germany before the First World War, the implication being that since a showdown is foreordained, better now, when China is still relatively weak. They forget that, in the eyes of history, the sin of the statesmen of that period was their failure to arrest the catastrophe that nearly destroyed European civilization.

A Sino-American conflict would be similarly avoidable and damaging to both sides. Both sides need a respite from the febrile mood of the moment. The atmosphere for this is not favorable in either country. Anti-American nationalism seems to be gaining momentum in Beijing. In America, a growing consensus in which China replaces the Soviet Union as our main enemy stultifies a necessary debate. Doubters of the dominant trend are accused of appeasement or of acting for their own economic benefit -- a charge to which I have been subjected because I am chairman of an international consulting company. Anybody believing this charge should stop reading here.

No single component of American foreign policy can be an end in itself. We have security, political and economic interests and commitments in Asia that we will not sacrifice to our interest in constructive relations with China, however important we judge these to be. But the prospects of world peace, stability and progress will be hazarded if the current unnecessary rush toward confrontation is not reversed by both sides.

The case against China boils down to three propositions:

That China, like the Soviet Union, is ideologically bent on regional, if not world, domination. Coexistence being impossible, we must maintain pressures on this last major totalitarian state until it transforms itself into a peaceful and cooperative democratic society.

That China's military buildup coupled with the growth of its economy inevitably challenges the U.S. position in Asia and should be stifled before it takes on unmanageable proportions.

That a military showdown over Taiwan is sufficiently probable that we must take all measures in defense of Taiwan, even if these measures make such a conflict inevitable.

But is China really comparable to the Soviet threat to the United States? Soviet ideology claimed universal applicability, and Soviet leaders as late as the '70s proclaimed the goal of the worldwide triumph of communism. Moscow avowed its determination to maintain communist parties in power, by force if necessary, intervening in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and threatening to do so in Poland and even in China. The Chinese communist leadership makes no such claims; it exploits no international network of communist parties or radical forces to undermine Western positions. While many repressive aspects of a one-party state continue, there has been a vast improvement since Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

The debate over whether human rights should play a role in the conduct of our foreign policy has been won by the activists. But when the stakes are so high, these concerns need to be brought into some relationship with other objectives of American foreign policy. And the experiences of Haiti, Somalia and today in Kosovo should inspire some caution about how easy it is to impose our values.

Even greater perspective is needed with respect to Chinese military power. The Soviet Union possessed some 2,500 strategic delivery vehicles, most with multiple warheads and many with high accuracy. An attack on the United States was technically feasible and strategically not inconceivable. The Chinese strategic force of some 25 liquid-fueled missiles with single warheads requiring hours to get ready is not an instrument for offensive operations. And when, in perhaps 10 years, the Chinese acquire multiple warheads for a larger number of missiles, an American missile defense -- which I have always favored -- should substantially preserve the strategic balance.

As for Chinese ground forces, they are at a level of the technology of the 1960s, capable of defending the home country but not suitable for offensive operations against a major opponent -- including Taiwan. And around its periphery, China must cope with a strategic situation far more problematic than was the Soviet Union's in Europe. The Soviet Union threatened weak neighbors unable, either alone or in combination, to resist Soviet ground forces. But, from India to Japan to Russia, China faces militarily significant neighbors.

As for the Chinese economy, though China has grown at the average rate of 10 percent a year for much of the past 20 years, no country has ever maintained such a rate indefinitely. Nor is China doing so today. Its current growth of about 6 percent barely keeps pace with the growth of the Chinese labor force, leaving little room for a major increase in the percentage of the gross domestic product devoted to defense spending without risking a shipwreck like the Soviet Union's.

To be sure, as China develops what it calls its "comprehensive national strength," its military power will grow. But for the foreseeable future, the United States possesses diplomatic, economic and military advantages to enable us to shape the future confidently. Should China threaten the regional balance of power or our vital interests, we are bound to resist. But on proliferation, Asian economic progress and on stabilizing potential trouble spots such as South Asia and Korea, there are enough points of congruence to render a permanent geopolitical dialogue between China and the United States indispensable. For us to imagine that we can prevent China's natural growth and emergence as a major power is to commit us to an unprecedentedly domineering role. Over time, this would drain our physical and psychological resources, be opposed by the rest of the world and, in the end, by the American people.

Taiwan is the most explosive issue. Taiwan was part of China until 1895, when Japan annexed it, its first step toward conquest on the mainland. Starting with World War II, American presidents have affirmed Taiwan to be a part of China in one form or another: Franklin Roosevelt in 1943; Harry Truman in 1945; Richard Nixon in 1972; Jimmy Carter in 1979; and Ronald Reagan in 1982. The Reagan communique moreover stated that the United States had no intention of "pursuing a policy of two Chinas, or one China, on Taiwan" -- a formula repeated 16 years later by Clinton in Shanghai. Since 1971, each president has also firmly stated America's abiding concern for a peaceful resolution of the issue -- a euphemism for opposition to the use of force -- as did the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which adopted the principle as American law.

Within this framework, Taiwan has prospered, become democratic and increasingly participated in international forums that did not require formal state-to-state relations. At the same time, the United States, like the vast majority of the world's governments, was recognizing Beijing as the legitimate government of all of China. But, unlike most other countries, we were supplying the vast majority of the weapons for what was being treated officially as part of another country. For 30 years, China, while insisting on ultimate unification, nevertheless on several occasions expressed its willingness to defer a final resolution in the interest of its relationship with other countries, especially the United States. It did so provided Taiwan did not stake a formal claim to sovereignty. The United States, while repeatedly reaffirming its opposition to the use of force, did so invariably within the framework of a "one-China" policy.

This complex framework should not be trifled with. Indeed, it is very much in Taiwan's own interest. For the key constraint on China's Taiwan policy has been China's stake in its relationship with the United States. Were Taiwan to achieve formal American recognition of a separate status, as its president now seems to seek, this would surely lead to some kind of military clash that, whatever its outcome, would permanently rupture Sino-American relations and isolate America in Asia and probably the world. Taiwan would be less, not more, secure in such an environment.

Thus, when President Clinton and Jiang meet, they must try to defuse the immediate crisis and begin to place Sino-American relations on a solid basis. Slogans such as "strategic partnership" without content cannot substitute for a careful examination of where interests are congruent and where they need to be reassessed or managed.

With respect to Taiwan, three steps are needed: (1) to leave no ambiguity about America's opposition to the use of force; (2) to make clear that there is no change in America's longstanding acceptance of the principle of one China; (3) to insist on Taiwanese restraint in challenging a framework that, in fact, ensures their autonomy and without which events may well run out of control.

Acold war would leave both sides in a classic no-win situation. China's economic progress would be stifled. Historically covetous neighbors might resurrect past ambitions. And, given the present disproportion of power, a military conflict would have grave consequences for China.

At the same time, Beijing would have many political cards to play. The Soviet Union, in the end, stood substantially isolated facing a coalition of all the industrial democracies plus China. But China has traversed its 5,000 years of recorded history by careful calculations of its necessities and great patience. No Asian nation will go along with a confrontational course unless provoked by Chinese pressures. Our European allies will distinguish their policies from ours and blame tensions on American highhandedness. Every crisis point, from Korea to the Middle East, would be exacerbated by a Sino-American cold -- or hot -- war.

Escape from this rush toward self-fulfilling prophecies requires a degree of bipartisanship not in great supply at this moment. Once the die is cast for confrontation, there will be no easy way back from the precipice. Which of the statesmen who so exuberantly went to war in 1914 would not have jumped at a chance to review their decision when they looked back at the damage done to the civilization of Europe and the long-term peace of the world?

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm that has clients with business interests in many countries abroad.