China, U.S. try to mend relations Christopher secures small gains despite frank talks on rights

November 21, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Secretary of State Warren Christopher said yesterday that he and the Chinese engaged in "the most coming-to-grips discussion we've had of human rights for some time."

The Chinese responded that human rights in their country was none of Washington's business, but as China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Cui Tiankai put it: "One should not lose sight of the enormous shared interests between two countries simply because of a few differences."

Thus, after 18 months of rancorous relations, the United States and China took the first steps yesterday toward formally healing their rift as Christopher spent a day meeting China's leaders.

While incremental progress was made in one area -- controlling the spread of nuclear weapons -- the focus was instead on re-establishing some structure to a relationship that had degenerated to a military standoff over Taiwan earlier this year.

Christopher's visit to the Chinese capital -- just his second in four years -- sets the stage for Sunday's summit in the Philippines between President Jiang Zemin and President Clinton. It also may have helped pave the way for a state visit next year by Jiang to Washington and a reciprocal visit by Clinton to Beijing.

Jiang's visit would be the first by a Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping visited in 1979, a sign of how distant Sino-U.S. relations have become.

While relations between China and the United States were stable during the 1980s, when the two nations were united by their hostility to the Soviet Union, they were thrown off course by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Chinese military crackdown on student demonstrators in 1989.

Relations reached a low this year when China engaged in military maneuvers off the coast of Taiwan and the United States responded by sending warships to the region.

Yesterday's visit was compared by some diplomats to the necessary, but sometimes fruitless, meetings with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The two sides talked, small issues hTC were resolved and more talks were scheduled.

Given the different systems the two sides have, disagreements may be inevitable, said Cui, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.

"The United States often finds itself at odds with some of its allies, so it's not simple to see eye to eye with each other all the time," Cui said. "Therefore let's not make a fuss about it but find the right approach."

Of the issues dividing the two sides, most progress was made in nuclear proliferation, with Christopher saying China had agreed to implement a nationwide nuclear-control program, especially to control sales of technology that can be used for civilian and military purposes. Most Chinese efforts go toward stopping purely military sales, with little attention paid to dual-use technologies.

This was apparently the first time that Chinese officials had made such explicit assurances.

Most U.S. sales of peaceful nuclear technology are governed by a 1985 agreement requiring the president to certify to Congress that China is not spreading nuclear technology, something no president has been able to do.

A loophole, however, allows the president to approve of limited sales of nuclear technology without congressional approval.

Such sales would not involve big-ticket items, such as reactors, fuel or other hardware. Instead, they could be cooperative agreements between U.S. companies and China on nuclear safety.

"If they're making progress in putting the accord into effect, we're willing to consider other things," such as limited sales, Christopher said during a press conference after his meetings.

Chinese officials also said for the first time that they would consider joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a Swiss-based organization of countries that sell nuclear technology. Joining the group could help convince skeptics that China does not intend to sell nuclear technology to other states.

On many other issues, however, views were simply restated.

China started the day with Foreign Minister Qian Qichen protesting U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the independent island off China's coast that Beijing considers a renegade province. Washington gave the usual response that it was abiding by previous pacts, which allowed arms sales to Taiwan.

Christopher gave a lecture on human rights to Qian, Jiang and Premier Li Peng, telling them they should release prisoners of conscience. The Chinese side responded -- as always -- that its internal matters were its own affair.

China's exasperation at U.S. prodding was hinted at by Cui, who was asked about U.S. concern over Hong Kong, which reverts to China next year, ending British colonial rule.

"The return of Hong Kong to China will mark the real beginning of human rights for the people of Hong Kong, therefore anyone who is really concerned about human rights in China should be

happy.

"No other country has the right to poke its nose into it, because Hong Kong's affairs will become China's affairs," Cui said.

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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