SOME good vibes in Sino-American ties are in the air, but it will take real statesmanship to nurture the fragile relationship back to health. And the frost that would likely come with the death of Deng Xiaoping could kill the tiny olive branches. Beijing and Washington, which had almost gone over the brink over intellectual property rights, have appeared quite determined to give it another go. Take high-stakes mini-summit diplomacy. The meeting next week in the US between Vice-Premier Qian Qichen and Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the fringes of the international non-nuclear proliferation conference will probably be followed in May by a quasi-summit in Moscow between President Jiang Zemin and his counterpart Bill Clinton. That tete-a-tete will be an offshoot of a gathering of global heads of state to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. While a Clinton visit to China is feasible only if his chances of re-election pick up, political analysts in Washington said tours by Vice-President Al Gore and First Lady Hillary Clinton were 'actively being contemplated'. There may also be something more concrete apart from the handshakes and photo opportunities. Beijing has been putting on a 'transparency show' in the two areas of international security that worry Washington most: China's arms build-up and its alleged sale of missiles and nuclear technology to other countries. Assistant Chief of Staff Xiong Guangkai tried to convince his American hosts last month that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had no hidden agenda. He claimed that the National People's Congress, which approved the official budget of US$7.5 billion (about HK$58.5 billion) last month, had real supervisory powers. And a team led by Vice Foreign Minister Liu Huaqiu has this week in Washington resumed the dialogue on arms non-proliferation. Mr Liu has reportedly addressed widespread concerns that, to beat American intelligence, the Chinese had adopted more sophisticated methods in funnelling missile parts and nuclear knowhow to Pakistan and the Middle East. At least on the surface, the Clinton administration has reciprocated with largesse. Perhaps with a view to shrinking the huge trade surplus in China's favour, Washington has demonstrated an initial willingness to lift its ban on the transfer to China of some sensitive technologies, including nuclear-related ones. The Chinese, however, have to satisfy the US that these will not be converted for military uses. Since the uncoupling of human rights and Most Favoured Nation trade status last year, Mr Clinton has taken further steps to make the humanitarian issue more irrelevant to bilateral ties. The White House is set to announce formally a 'code of labour ethics' for Chinese and other overseas companies that are at least partially controlled by American investors. Aimed mainly at pacifying critics of Washington's China-related human rights policy, the protocol will supposedly protect the welfare of Chinese workers. Very few China observers, however, believe that the 'code' will have teeth. Seasoned analysts of the Sino-American tug-of-war have described these apparent fence-mending exercises as attempts to gloss over fundamental differences. As a leading US sinologist puts it, since the June 4, 1989 crackdown bilateral relations have been battered by at least one major crisis a year. Human rights dominated the first four years after Tiananmen Square. In 1994, it was Washington's alleged efforts to block China's accession to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. This year, it could be Taiwan. After a near-hysterical binge of protests, the Chinese have for the moment succeeded in getting a firm 'no' from Mr Clinton on Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's participation in an event at Cornell University, his alma mater. However, Beijing's histrionics have alienated many powerful members of the Republican-dominated Congress, seen as solidly pro-Taipei. Several senators have reportedly been shocked by a 'letter of intimidation' they received from the Chinese ambassador to Washington Li Daoyu, who warned of dire consequences of the Lee visit. Moreover, the Lee affair might not end so easily. A congressional source pointed out that legislators were working on a variation of the formula of an 'extended transit' for Mr Lee - perhaps a 24-hour stay in a 'non-mainland' destination such as Hawaii. In spite of the supposed guarantees by General Xiong, Mr Liu and Mr Qian, Washington has never lowered its guard over the PLA's alleged bid for superpower status. The US has lent quiet, but firm, support to accusations by other claimants to disputed islands, such as the Spratlys, that Beijing wants nothing less than to turn the South China Sea into a 'Chinese lake'. 'The Chinese navy's rather impetuous effort to build markers and structures on the Mischief Atoll and other islets near the Philippines has given Washington an opportunity to persuade China's Asian neighbours to join hands in forcing Beijing to agree to an international - and peaceful - settlement of the disputes,' a Western diplomat said. The Spratly issue, according to the diplomat, also exposes Washington's fear of PLA preponderance in the coming decade, which will see a further downsizing of the US forces. 'The US must solve the problem of the Spratlys when the Seventh Fleet is still around,' he said. 'The Chinese are convinced that not too far down the road, their fast-expanding blue-water fleet will be king of the Asian sea lanes.' According to Harry Harding, an authority on Sino-American relations, it is difficult to redress the erosion of mutual trust that has taken place since mid-1989. Mr Harding warned that the weak leadership in the first two to three years of the post-Deng era could make things worse. 'In the past, there were strong, or at least top-level, leaders on both sides who had a personal commitment to improving ties,' he said, citing Mao Zedong, Mr Deng, and former US presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. The sinologist added that with diffident leaders running both capitals, the climate of distrust could turn every move in the other camp into fodder for conspiracy theories.