U.S., China ease tension, agree to resume high-level contacts

Clinton scheduled to meet with President Jiang

July 26, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SINGAPORE -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said yesterday that a two-hour meeting here with China's top diplomat had eased tensions with Beijing and begun to repair nearly paralyzed relations between the world's most populous nation and its most powerful one.

Most important, the two sides announced that President Clinton will meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin during an Asia Pacific economic forum in mid-September in Wellington, New Zealand, for the leaders' first face-to-face talks in more than a year.

Planning for the summit will require vastly increased contacts with Beijing in coming weeks. China angrily suspended nearly all normal diplomatic exchanges and official contacts after a U.S. warplane mistakenly bombed China's embassy in Belgrade on May 8 during the NATO air war against Yugoslavia.

But China's minister of foreign affairs, Tang Jiaxuan, refused Albright's request to again allow visits by U.S. warships to Chinese ports or to resume talks aimed at curbing proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. And the United States continued to walk a diplomatic tightrope over its relations with Taiwan at the risk of alienating China during such a sensitive time.

"I would characterize this as an easing of tensions," Albright told reporters after a lavish Chinese banquet. "While there are still subjects upon which we disagree and have to work out the arrangements, I was quite satisfied with the restoration of communication over a very friendly lunch."

Tang was less effusive, but he too seemed pleased with the session, calling it "useful and positive in relation to the future direction of the U.S.-China relationship."

Albright and Tang gave their careful but upbeat assessments at separate news conferences on the eve of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional security forum. Together, their comments suggest that the worst may be over for a bilateral relationship that is crucial to both nations, as well as stability in Asia.

"Things are starting to move," said a U.S. official who attended the lunch. "Not all the way, clearly. But we moved forward."

Tang announced the September meeting between Clinton and Jiang, their first since the two leaders held a summit in Beijing in August. Tang and Albright agreed to immediately begin preparations for the meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Wellington.

Clinton first proposed the meeting when he called Jiang from the White House two weeks ago, and Jiang accepted, according to a senior administration official. But neither side publicly confirmed the meeting until Albright and Tang had a chance to discuss it here.

In their meeting, the two diplomats focused largely on the embassy attack and on how the two nations view Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's unexpected announcement July 9 that the island's relations with China must be conducted on a "state-to-state" basis.

That appeared to directly challenge the vague but long-standing formulation that allowed both governments to coexist by claiming to be part of "one China."

At the news conference, Tang dropped his genial smile and friendly demeanor to warn that newly mending ties with the United States could unravel over the Taiwan issue.

The United States, he said, "should be very careful not to say anything or do anything to fan the flames of Taiwan independence or separatist remarks or activities. The U.S. should say little and act with great caution."

Washington is caught in a delicate balancing act: Since helping defuse the last confrontation, in 1996, between the mainland and Taiwan over Beijing's perception of Taipei's drive for independence, the Clinton administration has been trying to build closer ties with a more powerful China, while quietly expanding military ties with Taiwan.

In Taipei, Richard Bush, Washington's top liaison with Taiwan, urged Beijing and Taipei yesterday to cool tensions and avoid war, but said the United States would not mediate between them.

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