WASHINGTON — After weeks of mounting tensions, the United States and China took small steps back from the brink of confrontation Thursday, exchanging conciliatory words but stopping well short of what the other side wanted on the two main irritants in their relationship.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry and State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, in parallel statements, said the decision to let Taiwan's president make a private visit to the United States did not change Washington's 23-year-old "one-China" policy, which precludes diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
And only hours earlier, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang called on the United States to be patient with China's handling of detained Chinese American human rights crusader Harry Wu, an apparent hint that Wu eventually may be released.
Although officials on both sides said it is time to patch up the quarrel, neither seemed satisfied with the gesture of the other.
Burns said Chinese officials, angered by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's visit to Cornell University, had demanded that President Clinton personally reaffirm the one-China policy and promise that the United States would never again issue a visa to a Taiwanese official. Burns said there are no plans for Clinton to address the issue in public. And he said any visa applications from Taiwanese officials would be handled "on a case-by-case basis."
China considers Taiwan a renegade province. For most of the 46 years since Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalist army fled to Taiwan, the regime on the island claimed to be the rightful government of all of China, in effect agreeing with Beijing that there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of it. Now, Taiwan would clearly like to be recognized as an independent nation. Yet the island still uses the official name "Republic of China."
In the Wu case, it is the United States that is protesting. In Beijing, Shen said Thursday: "We hope the U.S. government can adopt a patient attitude and wait to see the result of investigations and the verdict made by Chinese judicial departments."
Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, just back from a visit to China, sounded the same theme. He said Chinese leaders "should be given some opportunity to reflect about the strong feelings that have been expressed by many Americans" about Wu's arrest. "We should try to avoid too much of a confrontation in the immediate future to see whether on reflection . . . they will in the near future release him."
Burns said the United States has been patient long enough and it is time for China to release Wu.
He added that the Administration had rejected suggestions from Wu's wife and from some Congress members that the United States boycott a U.N. conference on women scheduled for Beijing in September. It is not practical to move the conference to another country, he said, calling the meeting an important one that the United States should attend.
Burns said the United States is seeking high-level meetings with Chinese officials to deal with the disputes between the two governments. He said Secretary of State Warren Christopher is prepared to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen next month at the annual meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations in Brunei. But, he said, China has not replied to Washington's proposal for a meeting.