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The last few weeks have been difficult ones for Sino-U.S. relations. The U.S. canceled the planned sale of a satellite to a Chinese-led consortium, the annual State Department human-rights report released last week slammed Beijing’s policies and the Pentagon has warned of an ominous Chinese missile buildup along the coast facing Taiwan. No wonder Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had “frank exchanges” — diplomatic talk for profound disagreements — with Chinese leaders during her visit to Beijing earlier this week.

Things are unlikely to get better anytime soon. President Bill Clinton’s commitment to “constructive engagement” will remain unshaken, since he has invested so much political capital in the idea during his term in office. But the campaign for the 2000 elections has already begun, and Democratic strategists know that China policy was one club that candidate Clinton used in 1992 to beat up on then-President George Bush. They will want to make sure that history does not repeat itself.

Circumstances will make that task difficult. The Chinese government has been cracking down on dissidents in the last few months, and repression is expected to increase as China’s economy slows in the months ahead. Propaganda aside, Chinese leaders are genuinely concerned about the proposed revisions in Japan-U.S. defense guidelines and the prospect of increased cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and Taiwan over theater-missile defense. Even without crediting the darker predictions of Chinese strategists, both will constrain Beijing’s room to maneuver in the region. Objectively, that is not bad: From Beijing’s perspective, however, it is unjust.

The ability of the two sides to disagree so profoundly, yet continue their discussions is encouraging. What is most important now is that illusions be dispelled. The two governments must understand who they are dealing with; only then can common interests be developed and the relationship move forward. Ms. Albright attempted to dispel the Chinese notion that a “handful of anti-China elements” are responsible for the problems in the bilateral relationship. The tensions are basic. Only straight talk will work them out.

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