WASHINGTON — Trying to salvage America's once-flourishing commercial relationship with China, the Bush Administration moved Friday to relax the tensions produced by Beijing's bloody suppression of the pro-democracy movement.
While repeating Washington's abhorrence of China's escalating crackdown on dissent, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said President Bush "believes a relationship between the United States and China is an important one, and we would like to see it return to normal."
'Work With Leaders'
Asked if Washington can continue to work with Chinese leaders after the brutality in and around Tian An Men Square, Fitzwater said, "We work . . . with whatever leaders are in charge of the country, just as we do every other country."
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler added, "It is in no one's interest to have bad relationships between these two great nations."
She said the Administration will not try to discourage American businessmen who want to resume operations in China although, for the time being, it may be too dangerous to do so.
In Beijing, senior officials at the U.S. Embassy said a continuation of the Sino-American rancor of the last two weeks will increase the damage already done to the economic and political reforms of the last decade.
"It is not in our interest to kill off reform," one official said.
He said that reduced trade and commerce would strengthen hard-liners who oppose not only political reform but China's burgeoning ties with the West as well.
"There are people who have never been happy with the policy of opening to the world and have been fighting a rear-guard action for the past 10 years to reverse it," the official said. "This is perhaps their last great opportunity."
On Capitol Hill, however, there were complaints that the Administration was sending the wrong signal both to the Chinese authorities and to the demonstrators who have been severely punished for advocating freedom and democracy.
Cranston Predicts Action
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Asia subcommittee, predicted that Congress will insist on a sterner response. A spokesman for the chairman of the House Asia subcommittee, Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), said there is also sentiment in the House for additional sanctions.
Referring to an official visit that Bush made as vice president to Manila during the regime of the authoritarian President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Cranston said, "I see a parallel to George Bush going over to the Philippines and praising Marcos for his commitment to democracy. He apparently hasn't learned yet."
It was not clear whether the Administration decided on its own to try to de-escalate tensions or whether it was responding to some secret signal from Beijing. However, the official Chinese press was somewhat less vitriolic in its treatment of the United States on Friday than it has been recently.
Modest Objectives Seen
One Administration official said Washington's objectives are modest.
"The goal is to keep the structure of the relationship, so that in a happier day, with happier leaders, we don't have to start all over again with everything in pieces."
After the tanks rolled into Tian An Men Square on the night of June 3-4, most American businessmen fled the country, effectively interrupting the commercial relationship that has been at the heart of U.S.-China ties for a decade. The most important question in the short run is whether or not these businessmen plan to return soon.
Tutwiler said the State Department still considers China to be a dangerous place for Americans, so it will not urge the businessmen to go back. But she said the Administration would not try to stop anyone who had such plans.
Wants No Business Boycott
Fitzwater made it clear that the Administration does not want the businessmen to boycott China.
"American businessmen are there for their business interests," he said. "I don't think they need to assume a government role in terms of protests.
"They have private responsibilities that they have to meet, but I don't have any special advice for them other than the standard ones of caution, and to point out the danger involved and so forth," Fitzwater added. "Do you want the president of Exxon to go protest or something?"
"One of the hallmarks of freedom and democracy are individuals' rights to pursue whatever endeavors they choose," he said. "And we would not try to infringe upon those rights in any way."
In Beijing, a senior embassy official said the United States wants to avoid a break in commercial relations if possible.
"The people we deal with in these (business) matters are the good guys," the official said.
Dissent on 'Open Door'
In recent days, there have been expressions of open dissent in China's government over the wisdom of pursuing an "open-door policy" with the West.