Returning from a trip to Peking, I was disappointed to find the debate on China in the United States being misdirected into the unproductive and retrogressive paths suggested by Ronald Reagan. It was clear to me, having had a firsthand look at the remarkable progress normalization has made possible, that this is not the way to go. There is a better way.

Taiwan and China should begin direct negotiations on their future relationship. East Asia is relatively stable; Taiwan is secure enough to bargain with Peking; and the current political changes in China afford Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang a chance to seek resolution of the Taiwan issue.

The U.S. declaration in the Shanghai Communique' of February 1972 suggests a point of departure: "The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China, and that Taiwan is a part ofChina. The U.S. government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves."

What kind of "one China" do the Chinese on both sides of the strait envisage? The official Taiwan position that its government is the legitimate government of all China is anachronistic in 1980. But even if that position were used as a bargaining opener, what do Taiwan's leaders really want? What would they settle for as an acceptable relationship with China? Taiwan's leadership is now secure enough to negotiate. A weaker future government might not be able to risk such an initiative.

I met with Zhao Ziyang and with other senior members of the Chinese government as a guest of the National People's Congress. The recent meeting of the NPC and its substantial political announcements confirm my impression of a serious effort to effect constructive change. Granted that China's history during the past 15 years makes an outside observer cautious in judgment. But the sincerity and extent of China's endeavors to promote modernization demonstrate a willingness to tackle difficult problems.

Chinese officials told me that the key to peaceful settlement of the Taiwan issue is to start negotiations soon. In their view, the "one China" acceptance by both sides means that the two essentials of sovereignty -- defense and foreign policy -- be set by the Peking government. The rest is negotiable. Chinese officials suggested that it is quite possible for China to accept the existence of a different social system, of a capitalist economy and of different laws in Taiwan. China's fear is that a recalcitrant Taiwan will be tempted to ignore the future by the receipt of arms from the United States and others.

In light of the economic and political liberties that have allowed Taiwan to prosper, Taiwan has reason to fear the terms of federation or confederation with China. But it has much to gain from negotiating, including confirmation of the right to continue the system that has brought prosperity. It is possible -- even likely, as of now -- that an agreement would allow Taiwan to continue as a thriving and special part of China.

It is also reasonable to ask what Taiwan has to lose by negotiations. The current leadership on Taiwan may be committed to a posture of recalcitrant and beleaguered resistance to a presumed ill fate. But even that position would have greater credibility and legitmacy if good faith bargaining with China produced unacceptable demands.

The National People's Congress recently conveyed a movement in China under way for the past few years. The message of the new leadership is pragmatism. Incentives -- not ideology -- are the current focus. Problem-solvers are promoted. the cult of Mao with its burden of bitter memories has been repudiated. China is experimenting some remarkable innovatons: private farm plots, open markets, work incentives, membership in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and cooperation with the West.

The National People's Congress signals a slight opening of the political system. There is discussion of open candidacies and less controlled elections. In Tibet, the possible return of the Dalai Lama is tied to a relaxed official view of Buddhism and increased talk for freedom of religion. Across a broad spectrum, China's interest in progress and its receptivity to change have been demonstrated.

Taiwan faces an opportunity now to negotiate its future. Talks could well serve to strengthen Taiwan's security and preserve its way of life.

The United States and other nations should encourage China and Taiwan to approach the bargaining table. The political season in the United States is no excuse for recriminations or retrospective rhetoric. Rather, the challenge is to seize an opportunity despite the foreign policy constraints of an election year.