With major economic issues looming, Secretary of State George P. Shultz is expected to be diverted from his goal of focusing on wider strategic questions in discussions with Chinese leaders here this week.
Western diplomats said Shultz had hoped his first trip to China would revitalize the once touted partnership that came unraveled after two years of wrangling over Taiwan's status. He has prepared himself for the kind of broad strategic dialogue put off by the Taiwan controversy, seeking Peking's views on Asian security, arms control and its recent peace feints toward the Soviet Union.
But almost as soon as the Taiwan imbroglio subsided, it was replaced by intense commercial conflicts involving textiles, technology transfers and nuclear cooperation. Those problems are certain to preoccupy Shultz during much of his four-day sojourn in Peking--starting Wednesday--according to diplomats.
A seemingly routine dispute over U.S. textile import controls suddenly erupted this month into a volley of potentially costly protectionist moves, pushing the two nations to the brink of trade war.
"A bad lead up to the Shultz visit," observed a European diplomat here. "Looks like the secretary is in for some Chinese haranguing."
Some western diplomats view the commercial flaps as marginal and transitory problems magnified out of proportion by the mutual distrust still lingering from tense negotiations over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which produced a tentative but calming compromise in August.
Once Shultz restores good will, according to a senior diplomat, "These nasty little issues can be dealt with by nasty little people in a rational way, rather than becoming the subject of slamming editorials in the People's Daily or a trade war."
Other foreign analysts are not as sanguine. They regard the economic fights less as temporary symptoms than the chief cause of the Sino-American diplomatic flu.
"Economics have taken center stage," said a European diplomat. "One of the key things China wanted from the Americans was economic benefit. It was the point of common ground for those who supported the 1979 rapprochement and those who weren't so keen on it."
"If China doesn't get any of those commercial advantages," he continued, "there will be people saying, 'Why should we be nice to these Yankee hegemonists in the first place?' "
By most measures, Sino-American trade is a success story. From a scanty $4.9 million when commerce resumed in 1971, two-way trade has exceeded $5 billion for the past two years, with China becoming a major market for American grain and the United States for Chinese textiles.
Prospects for continued growth are judged to be rosy as U.S. companies hope to cash in on Peking's plans to exploit its offshore oil, coal and hydropower resources with the help of advanced western technology.
China, in turn, expects to sell everything from gasoline to frozen hog semen to the United States for big profits.
"I'm upbeat on trade," said a spokesman for the National Council for U.S.-China trade, which had predicted a $1 billion spurt in bilateral exchanges this year before the textile hassle erupted.
But, behind the impressive statistics and bullish forecasts lies a tangle of bitter commercial disputes that threaten to destroy earlier gains.
They are the kind of irritants Shultz hopes to salve if, in the words of a senior western diplomat, he is to succeed in curing the "queasiness" in bilateral relations and restoring trust.
Perhaps the most emotional issue is technology transfer because it was the basis for many of the high hopes for the relationship in the first place. For Americans, it meant new markets. For the Chinese, it meant a ready source of top-grade electronics and know-how to facilitate China's modernization.
But hopes were quickly dashed by a maze of U.S. export controls. Peking fumed while U.S. bureaucrats took more than a year to approve the sale of simple computers to be used in China's census last year.
The Reagan administration responded with conflicting signals, first liberalizing the U.S. export policy toward China in June 1981, then tightening it a year later after intelligence reports cited the serious leakage of critical industrial know-how to the Soviet Union and China.
Former foreign minister Huang Hua, in a speech in October to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, reflected Peking's pique and the importance it ascribes to U.S. technology sales.
"In view of the recent developments," Huang said, "one cannot help asking, 'Does the U.S. government regard China as a friend or a foe?' "
The same question is expected to come up next week. Shultz, a former treasury secretary who has helped ease U.S. trade conflicts in Western Europe, is likely to be pressed for approval of Chinese requests for $15 million worth of computers for the nation's disorganized university system, 23 earth stations valued at $1 million each to be used by the Petroleum Ministry for gathering geological data and a $12 million ground satellite tracking station.
All three bids could encounter export control obstacles in Washington, especially the tracking station, which would allow China to receive agricultural and geological information from the U.S. Landsat network of Earth-monitoring satellites.
Although Landsat provides data for civilian purposes, a receiver like the one China is seeking could be converted to military uses if ornamented with certain devices, according to western science advisers here.
While Washington has exempted China from the ban on lethal weapons imposed on other Communist countries, it still restricts sales of "equipment and technology that could make a significant contribution to the design, development or manufacture of new weapons or delivery systems."
This ambiguous formula spills over to another commercial conflict concerning U.S. exports of nuclear-power technology and equipment to China.
Although American companies once figured prominently in China's ambitious atomic energy plans, they have been excluded from billions of dollars in potential sales by Washington's inability to reach a nuclear cooperation agreement with Peking.
A 1978 U.S. law forbids the sale of American nuclear know-how, equipment or supplies to nations failing to sign the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or to join the International Atomic Energy Commission, which inspects civilian atomic facilities to ensure that there is no diversion of nuclear material for military uses.
Shultz is expected to press for Chinese compliance in light of recent U.S. government reports citing China for playing the role of wild-card supplier of nuclear aid to nations believed to be covertly developing their own atomic weapons.
U.S. officials have been quoted as saying Peking sold low-enriched uranium to South Africa last year through European intermediaries. Other U.S. intelligence sources say China has provided Pakistan with sensitive information about the design of nuclear bombs, possibly assisting it to develop nuclear weapons capability.
Peking, which has had nuclear weapons for almost 20 years, has refused to comply with either U.S. requirement, claiming they are tools designed by the two superpowers to maintain their "nuclear monopoly."
The need for some agreement is pressing because Peking has begun looking for foreign vendors to help design and build its first two nuclear power plants.
With negotiations stalled for over a year, Shultz is thought likely to seek Chinese assurances about safeguarding their nuclear exports to keep key materials away from non-nuclear states.