After 3 1/2 years as the point man in one of America's most important international relationships, Jim Sasser, the outgoing ambassador to China, has learned a simple lesson: increasing mutual understanding is not always pretty.

Take a night in 1997, a year in which he shepherded more than 100 members of Congress through Beijing as part of an effort to improve battered ties following a dangerous standoff over Taiwan. A Chinese deputy foreign minister hosted an elegant banquet, delivered a briefing on China's domestic and international challenges, then offered to take questions.

"One congressman asked: `I just want to know if you've accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior,' " Sasser recalled. "The minister looked stunned, and he said `no.' The whole table almost fell on the floor. The congressman was quite serious. That was his litmus test." Sasser declined to identify the congressman.

In an interview at his residence hours before movers came, Sasser told of the sometimes amusing and sometimes alarming mechanics of nurturing relations between the world's most powerful country and the world's most populous one. While the U.S. bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade seems to have wiped away most signs of recent progress, Sasser insists there are still reasons for optimism.

"The bridges are still intact," said the 61-year-old former senator from Tennessee, who has been tipped for a position in Vice President Gore's presidential campaign. "Some of them have been superficially damaged as a result of the Belgrade bombing, but the structures are still strong."

Sasser has differed from recent ambassadors to Beijing. The prior three -- Stapleton Roy, James Lilley and Winston Lord -- were all China experts. Sasser's appointment was criticized because he was a China novice. But the political skills he honed in Washington turned out to be useful in Beijing.

In March 1996, one month after he arrived here, provocative Chinese missile firings over the Taiwan Strait helped jolt the Clinton administration into pursing an aggressive, and controversial, engagement policy with China. Sasser was given responsibility for rebuilding relationships in Beijing and raising China's profile back home. As a longtime friend of the Gore family, Sasser had direct access to the White House, which is unusual for an ambassador.

Sasser's southern roots may have smoothed his way in China. Coming from a region that traditionally values personal ties, he understood intrinsically the Chinese concept of guanxi -- the trusting, give-and-take relationships that drive much of politics and culture here.

While efforts to increase contacts at all levels of government have sometimes resulted in culture clashes, they have also added a human element that can ease tensions, Sasser said.

Building military-to-military ties was a priority "because that's where a lot of the suspicion was coming from out here -- almost a paranoid suspicion -- and there was some of that in the United States as well," Sasser said.

Sasser said his high point as ambassador was standing outside the Great Hall of the People last year with Presidents Clinton and Jiang Zemin, watching the American flag flapping in the summer breeze during the June summit.

The low point was the Sunday morning after the embassy bombing seven weeks ago when he stood inside the U.S. Embassy destroying documents and sensitive equipment because "we thought Chinese mobs were coming over the fence and coming in."

Chinese officials continue to publicly reject the U.S. explanation, offered last month by presidential envoy Thomas Pickering, that the bombing was caused by a litany of mistakes. But Sasser said there are encouraging signs that China's ruling bureaucracy has nevertheless begun to "reexamine" its handling of the issue.

"They realize that they were mistaken in concealing the reason many countries were willing to risk their young people and treasure" over Kosovo, Sasser said. They are also questioning their decision to immediately declare that the embassy bombing was deliberate, he added.

Sasser criticized Washington's handling of the initial bombing apology, which Clinton made in answer to a reporter's question while touring a disaster area. Chinese leaders were offended by the tone and setting of the apology, Sasser said.

"I can understand why they did what they did. I'm sure that they thought it was important for us to get an apology out as quickly as we can," Sasser said. But, he added, "my sense of it is we could have done a better job in the initial reaction to this." He credited Clinton with making an unprecedented and effective personal apology "when he got to Washington and he realized the full gravity of the situation."

Administration critics in Congress and elsewhere cite China's alleged nuclear espionage and the government's brutal treatment of dissidents as justifications for a more confrontational policy.

But Sasser, who terms himself an "amateur historian" of the 20th century's major wars, argues that engagement is the best way to encourage China to be a responsible emerging power, unlike wartime Germany or Japan.

"If you want to treat China as an enemy, you have a much better chance of making them an enemy than if you treat them as a potential friend," he said.

The nominee to replace Sasser is retired Adm. Joseph W. Prueher. His nomination has not yet been officially confirmed by the U.S. Senate or accepted by the Chinese.

CAPTION: Washington's outgoing ambassador to Beijing, Jim Sasser, says that despite such recent setbacks as the bombing of China's Belgrade embassy, links between the United States and China remain strong.