Five years ago, then-Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown traveled to Beijing with an entourage of U.S. business executives to trumpet the virtues of what he called "commercial diplomacy."

U.S. businesses, he said, would be ambassadors for the American economic way and American political values, while producing profits for shareholders and jobs for U.S. workers. He distributed a slick brochure with photos and biographies of the executives on his trip, including Bernard Schwartz, a major Democratic contributor and chairman of the satellite company Loral Corp.

"Commercial diplomacy is about binding people together not through force, but through something much stronger: the force of self-interest," Brown told an American Chamber of Commerce group in Beijing a few months later.

Today, with the future of U.S.-China relations in the balance, it remains unclear whether the forces pulling China and the United States apart will be stronger than those binding them. Brown died in a plane crash three years ago. Schwartz and his company have been under fire for allegedly providing sensitive missile technology to China. And Clinton administration Cabinet secretaries and business groups are canceling trips to China instead of making them.

Opponents of the U.S.-China relationship in Beijing cite the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, while those in Washington use the Cox report about alleged Chinese espionage in the United States. A year ago, people spoke about the Internet and trade reducing the importance of national borders; today some people in China call the accidental bombing a violation of their sovereign territory, and some people in the United States talk about spying allegations as an unprecedented threat to U.S. security.

"How China views the U.S. role -- whether the U.S. is intent on containing China's development -- and the U.S. perception of China as a rising power -- whether China is a threat to the United States -- these are the central issues to which there are no answers," said Pei Minxin, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

If Brown's view of U.S.-China relations seems Pollyanna-ish today, there remains an element of self-interest that has kept the United States and China from severing ties.

China exported more than $70 billion in goods to the United States last year, an amount equal to roughly 7 percent of its economic output. Foreign investment in China, led by U.S. companies, provides a key stimulant to an economy where unemployment is reaching politically explosive levels.

For the United States, economic interests also are important. American companies have big investments in China, and the United States exports $14 billion in goods to China every year, including $3.5 billion in aircraft and spacecraft equipment. Cheap imports -- including $8 billion in footwear and $11 billion in baby carriages, toys and sporting goods -- have helped keep inflation low. But other issues loom even larger, such as securing China's cooperation on preventing the spread of weapons and its aid in fighting crime and drugs.

"This is a two-way relationship," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said last week. "We believe engagement serves our national interests in a number of ways. We believe that China is not doing us any favor over the years in working with the United States because they believe it serves their national interests."

If the shadow of a new Cold War has been cast over the relationship, it is a strange type of Cold War.

Whereas wheat exporters were about the only Americans with an economic interest in ties to the old Soviet Union, today myriad U.S. importers and exporters have economic interests in China. Information, while still impeded by the Chinese government, flows in volumes that dwarf what took place between the United States and the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of students from each country study in the other.

"I don't think the embassy bombing and the Cox report can push the relationship over the brink," said Pei. "Even though we will see some sort of lingering effects, they are not going to do fundamental damage."

Pei said the steps taken by China so far in response to the accidental NATO bombing of its Belgrade embassy -- including a cut in military exchanges, a suspension of U.S. naval visits to Hong Kong -- were "largely symbolic measures that have not hurt the backbone of the U.S.-China relationship."

In Washington, however, those measures and the demonstrations and stoning of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing have made it harder for defenders of the Clinton administration policy of engagement with China to withstand the political storm around the Cox report.

One casualty is any talk about China and the United States enjoying a "strategic partnership."

Clinton administration members say the phrase has been misunderstood. "We always said we were in the process of building a strategic partnership for the 21st century, which is to say one doesn't exist now," said one administration member. Moreover, he said, "partnership is not an alliance. It is a very loose term."

Misunderstood or not, it has disappeared from the diplomatic lexicon for now. It makes too easy a target for Republicans who hope to make national security a key election issue in 2000.

What seems likely to survive is the less controversial phrase "engagement."

Like strategic partnership, engagement is a term that lacks specific content. Indeed, it is impossible to translate exactly into Chinese at all without losing some of the word's "ambiguity and richness," said Pei.

But in a sense, an ambiguous sort of engagement has been the U.S. policy toward China since relations were established in the 1970s. The United States has combined the prospect of force -- by maintaining troops in Asia, military aid to Taiwan and a defense agreement with Japan -- with efforts to build economic and political ties that gradually decrease China's isolation and slowly open up China's political system.

Such evolutionary change is what Chinese Communist hardliners fear. But in Beijing too, the prevailing policy has survived assaults from those hardliners. It is a policy laid down by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who ruled China from 1978 through his fatal illness in the mid-1990s. Deng saw China's economic development as a 50-year project, and he favored a basically isolationist foreign policy that would not interfere with the pressing game of catch-up on economics.

Here too, engagement seems likely to remain, in one form or another, the consensus for policy. Clinton rather than China so far has been the target of Republican attacks.

For example, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a member of the Armed Services Committee and a Republican presidential candidate, said the Cox report showed that "too little action was taken too late by this administration" and called it "very damning to the administration."

But McCain said that it is not surprising that the Chinese would spy on the United States and that the Cox report should not affect U.S. trade relations with China. "We should judge it on the basis of our trade interests. The scandal is not that they spied on us but that we let them spy on us," McCain said.

There will be two tests soon for the U.S.-China relationship.

One will be whether China exercises its veto in the United Nations Security Council if and when a resolution comes regarding a settlement to the conflict in Kosovo. China has been sharply critical of NATO's bombing campaign.

The second will come in Congress, when lawmakers will have their annual opportunity to decide on China's trade privileges, once known as "most favored nation" status but now referred to as "normal trade relations."

In past years, the business community has lobbied on China's behalf. But this year, much of the lobbying will be more low-key.

Willard Workman, vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, notes that the United States exports more to Brazil than to China, and that Brazil is growing faster. He said that by international standards, "China is not a great place to make an investment" because of theft of technology and intellectual property and its relatively small middle-class market. But he said that normal trade relations status still should be renewed because "open markets mean open government."

Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said the spy scandal should not affect trade relations. "What we need to do about spying is have better preventative measures," he said. "We shouldn't destroy what may be in our own best interests in our justifiable outrage over their spying."

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.