OVER the next few weeks United States and Chinese diplomats will try to thrash out a deal to grant President Jiang Zemin's dearest wish - a ceremonial state visit to Washington. A week ago, the visiting US Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff raised the possibility that President Jiang could be received in the White House soon. Since then there have been hints that in the meantime the two countries could at least re-establish ambassadorial representation, yet it is by no means clear a real deal is in the making. No date is fixed for the return of China's Li Daoyu to Washington nor for the arrival of the designated US ambassador Jim Sasser. President Clinton will meet Jiang Zemin in New York on Tuesday when the UN General Assembly gathers to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Mr Jiang must judge soon whether this is better than nothing or to try to hold out for a proper visit as well. Yet if a real presidential summit takes place, it will be a key event in Sino-American relations. The last paramount Chinese leader to visit the United States was Deng Xiaoping 16 years ago. Since then other senior leaders such as President Li Xiannian and Li Peng in 1985, or Yang Shangkun in 1987, have visited, but they are not of comparable significance. Apart from Mr Deng, no head of the Chinese Communist Party has ever been received in the White House despite benevolent US attitudes towards China by Presidents Reagan and Bush. Mr Jiang may be the first designated heir of Mr Deng to be taken sufficiently seriously to be accorded this recognition. Mr Bush was the last US president to visit China 61/2 years ago, just before the Tiananmen demonstrations began. Since 1989, US public anger at the violent suppression of the democracy movement ruled out a formal summit although Presidents Clinton and Jiang met in side meetings. These were regarded as an unavoidable part of furthering US plans in East Asia. President Jiang's desire to be received in the White House is understandable. It is the easiest and most visible way to trump Taiwan's President Lee Teng Hui. Mr Lee did much to establish his own presidential credentials by becoming the first Taiwanese leader to go to the United States since 1979 when Washington stopped recognising the Kuomintang as the legitimate government of China. If Jiang Zemin was received with full honours in the United States, he would finally be able to bury the legacy of Tiananmen by ending the rift which it opened up between the two countries. A visit to Washington became more of an obstacle when President Clinton entered the White House on a 'bash China' ticket. SO if Mr Clinton were prepared to eat his words about mollycoddling the dictators in Beijing by welcoming one of them, it would do much to establish Mr Jiang's credibility by adding lustre to this diplomatic triumph. Perhaps the most important factor in Jiang Zemin's calculations is that he needs all the help he can get to establish his own dominant status among potential rivals to succeed Mr Deng. The personal benediction of the chief of the world's only superpower is a valuable asset in the power struggle at home. Whenever a new US president enters in the White House, it is customary for the United States' chief partners to jostle and try to be the first in the door to shake his hand. This is still regarded as important even if only as a ritual re-affirmation of ties. China does not have the same relationship with the United States. But just as any leader from the Middle East or the former Soviet bloc needs US support for its strategic or diplomatic manoeuvrings, so too does Beijing. Mr Jiang wants to be seen discussing China's ambitions for Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Southeast Asia in Washington and would love to have the sort of personal relationship with the White House Deng Xiaoping reputedly enjoyed with Reagan and Bush. Mr Jiang, unlike his greatest rival, Premier Li Peng, could aspire to this as he was not so visibly responsible for the army's intervention in 1989. China's demand for a one-to-one summit is never openly expressed. Instead there are the coded words reiterated at every opportunity by the foreign ministry when it calls on the US side to 'take concrete actions' to restore relations. China does not want to lose face by a public rejection and it knows this is quite possible. Some sort of deal may be worked out but much depends on what the Chinese offer in return. Mr Clinton must be able to show China is paying respect to a lengthening list of US concerns such as human rights, the transfer of missile and nuclear technology, access to China's markets, a strictly peaceful approach to negotiations on Taiwan and the Spratly Islands. Without these he will be unable to justify a summit to a Congress mostly hostile to China. It is quite likely these concessions will be the focus of negotiations between the two sides over the next few weeks. China may well be putting forward a package of major commercial contracts which could be announced if President Jiang went to the United States, like when he went to Germany. On the table too would have to be the timed release of key dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng. Most of all there would have to be a promise to end the military exercises off Taiwan and a return to the negotiating table. In return the Chinese would insist on a public affirmation by President Clinton of the United States' one China policy that he might be reluctant to give. It could easily be interpreted as an apology for a blunder. While President Clinton might wish to claim credit for getting bilateral relations with such a major world power back on track, the political currents in Beijing show signs of being too nationalistic to give Jiang Zemin much room for manoeuvre. His colleagues and rivals may not want him to offer enough concessions to satisfy the US and might even be happy to see him fail. Every straw in the political wind in Beijing suggests the Party line on everything from the handling of the Women's Conference and nuclear testing to Tibet and political dissent is getting tougher. The jingoistic nationalism is noticeable too in the endless propaganda about the defeat of Japan 50 years ago which barely mentions the US' part in Japan's downfall or its efforts in keeping Chinese resistance alive. China may still get what it wants if Mr Clinton is persuaded real politik demands a proper dialogue with a powerful country, but the chances are greater that both may find it more convenient to leave this summit to another day.