PRESIDENT Jiang Zemin has got it right. 'China needs to understand the outside world better, as the outside world must better understand China,' he told a Beijing conference at the weekend. 'It is important that China enjoy 'favourable international opinion' for the sake of its modernisation drive,' he added. But that opinion is suffering these days, and there is no greater example than the parlous state of relations between the United States and China which seemingly grow worse by the day. Each side accuses the other of misdeeds and bad faith as one event after another creates new strains, threatening to disrupt normal diplomatic and commercial exchanges. All this is happening only eight months from the time a visiting President Bill Clinton announced in Beijing that a new 'strategic partnership' had been forged between the world's most populous nation and its most powerful state. And it also comes just as the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, arrives in Beijing for talks about bilateral relations and plans for next month's American tour by Premier Zhu Rongji, a visit which may be the last chance before the US elections in 2000 to put relations on a more cordial basis. Yet events seem to be working against such a positive outcome. In recent days: An annual US report on human rights, mandated by Congress, accuses China of reneging on promises to show more tolerance toward political dissenters, thus violating United Nations accords which it signed not long ago. Beijing calls this unjustified interference in its internal affairs and quickly detains even more domestic critics; Under pressure from the Pentagon and Republican conservatives, Mr Clinton blocks a US$450 million sale of a commercial satellite for alleged 'national security' reasons. China says this shows 'an irrational sense of insecurity' and calls the decision hypocritical; By a vote of 99-0, the Senate tells the administration to introduce a resolution critical of China at a forthcoming United Nations human rights conference, although the White House does not want to do so. China expresses 'strong resentment and opposition'; An angry China uses its Security Council veto to halt a UN peacekeeping operation in Macedonia after that poor country grants diplomatic recognition to Taiwan in exchange for a US$235 million aid payoff. America criticises China for letting domestic issues override its international obligation to promote peace in other regions. Despite all these and other differences, the cause of improved Sino-American relations is not yet lost. For one thing, there is little in their common history - aberrations like the Korean War aside - which leaves a sense of basic hostility. Many Chinese long to see what they call the 'Beautiful Country' while many Americans hope to tour China. The Chinese may mistakenly dream of streets paved with gold while Americans think of the land of Marco Polo, but basic attitudes are friendly. Moreover, the two governments share many practical objectives. Neither wants any part of Korea to own nuclear weapons, and both want less tension on that peninsula. Neither wants Japan to become a military power again, although they differ greatly over the details. Beyond that, they share major economic interests which can promote affluence for both. And they realise that continued Asian stability underpins their political and economic policies. That is why the Albright visit is important; it offers a chance to tackle practical issues before the American electoral cycle makes sensible foreign policy even more difficult. For example, if terms for Chinese membership in the World Trade Organisation are settled, there would be less chance of punitive American trade measures. Hong Kong has a particular interest in this; some US politicians talk about imposing export controls on technology sales to the SAR on grounds that they could seep across the border. Mr Zhu's US tour will be even more crucial, if Beijing truly seizes the opportunity. He could explain to a sceptical public just how rapidly China is changing in terms of both personal and economic freedom. But mere platitudes about democracy and rule of law as distant goals will not do the job; some tangible proof that China has some moderately liberal goals would go far to offset suspicions it is becoming an unpleasant place enforcing stability. Each side needs, as President Jiang noted, a bit more understanding of the other. If the Albright and Zhu visits succeed, China may learn how to convince the world that its values do not exclude tolerance, while America would remember how to display a bit more patience. If they do, all Asia will be the winner.