WASHINGTON -- President Bush met with China's foreign minister yesterday in a major narrowing of the distance between the two powers since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and hinted at an eventual lifting of sanctions while acknowledging continued differences over human rights.
The 40-minute session came a day after Foreign Minister Qian Qichen abstained from a United Nations vote in New York authorizing the United States and its allies to wage war against Iraq if it fails to withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15.
U.S. officials had hoped that China would support the resolution, but Secretary of State James A. Baker III said afterward that he was not disappointed, given that China could have vetoed the measure.
Mr. Qian met with Mr. Bush and top U.S. officials in the Cabinet room immediately after leaving a two-hour meeting and working lunch with Mr. Baker.
Asked during a photo opportunity whether the Chinese had atoned for the killing of dissidents at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, Mr. Bush replied, "I think the Chinese government knows that we have some differences on this whole broad question of human rights. But we have many things in common, and one good thing is we have a very frank relationship with this foreign minister and an ability to discuss things openly."
One of the purposes of the meeting, the president said, "is to reduce these differences and to go forward."
Apart from human rights, the United States is also concerned about China's potential for exporting materials and technology to develop nuclear weapons and missiles. The State Department announced yesterday that two senior department officials would go to China soon to discuss both issues.
Following the massacre, the United States cut off defense cooperation as well as government and commercial military sales and announced that it would not support any international loans to China except those necessary for basic human needs.
The United States also banned "high-level exchanges," although subsequent events made clear this didn't apply to visits to China by high-level Americans or meetings elsewhere.
Asked whether he now was thinking of dropping the sanctions, Mr. Bush said, "We are going to discuss a wide array of questions, and I think it will go very well. . . . As I say, both sides are trying to strengthen and build on this relationship that both recognize as important."
Mr. Bush, a former envoy to China, resisted strong political pressure for stronger steps against China during its crackdown on pro-democracy movements, saying he didn't want to cut off contact and thereby weaken any American influence over Chinese behavior.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, harshly criticized the administration over the talks.