BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei — Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen on Tuesday began to thaw the recent freeze in U.S.-China relations, avoiding rhetoric and working toward a modest improvement in contacts between the two countries.
The two officials talked for 90 minutes in a spacious conference center here in a session both sides characterized in cautiously positive terms. And Christopher delivered a letter from President Clinton to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, emphasizing how important good relations with China are to the United States.
It was the first high-level exchange between the two countries since the Clinton Administration infuriated Beijing in the spring by permitting Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit the United States.
The meeting took place at the site of the annual conference of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations.
In a sign that ties are beginning to improve, Qian agreed to accept a visit to Beijing soon by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff. From June until this week, Chinese officials had refused American proposals for his trip or for any other visits by senior U.S. officials to Beijing.
The session was also noteworthy for what didn't happen. Chinese officials avoided the harsh language they have used recently and when denouncing U.S. policy during Christopher's ill-fated attempt last year to press for human rights improvements on a Beijing visit.
"I am ready to have serious discussions in a friendly and pragmatic attitude," Qian told reporters before Tuesday's meeting. He said he wanted to talk about "how to remove the consequences caused by Lee Teng-hui's visit."
But Qian and aides were unwilling to go much beyond the invitation to Tarnoff. They made it clear that China is not ready to send back to Washington Li Daoyu, Beijing's ambassador, who was recalled after Lee's visit in June, or accept former Sen. Jim Sasser of Tennessee, Clinton's choice to be ambassador to China.
Moreover, Chinese and U.S. officials admitted that while they discussed a possible summit this fall between Clinton and Jiang, neither side is prepared to make any hard and fast commitments.
A senior State Department official said the United States was waiting for "a more constructive environment" before scheduling a summit, acknowledging that China's detention of Chinese American activist Harry Wu makes any talk of a top-level meeting premature. "If Harry Wu is released Sept. 1, we could always have a summit in October," the official added.
Qian made it plain that Beijing, similarly, is waiting to see how the Administration handles Taiwanese issues before China moves toward warmer relations.
"Words must count, and deeds must yield results," he said, quoting from what he termed a Chinese proverb. "Words have their value only when they are honored in deeds. In what direction Sino-American relations will develop will depend on actual deeds" in implementing past U.S. agreements on China and Taiwan.
The cause of the recent tension between the United States and China is Clinton's decision in May to grant a visa for Lee to travel to an alumni reunion at Cornell University in Upstate New York--the first U.S. visit for any leader of Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory. The President acted only after the House and Senate, by near-unanimous margins, passed resolutions urging him to let Lee visit.
China has demanded that the Administration promise that Lee will never visit America again.
But neither Clinton nor his secretary of state has been willing to go that far. Although Qian tried again Tuesday to obtain a commitment from Christopher that the Taiwanese president will be kept out of the United States forever, Christopher refused.
Qian did win from Christopher a strong reaffirmation of the U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan, developed during then-President Richard Nixon's trip to China in 1972 and in communiques by the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations.
Under this "one-China" policy, the United States acknowledges that China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and America carries out only unofficial, non-government relations with Taiwan.
China believes the Administration veered from this policy by allowing Lee's visit. The Administration says the policy was not violated, because Lee's Cornell stop was private and unofficial.
Qian told reporters that Christopher had agreed that the United States will not support the cause of independence for Taiwan. Other U.S. officials have also given similar private assurances, including Nixon's national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, on his groundbreaking 1971 trip to Beijing.
But Christopher's policy reaffirmation is significant because Taiwan's leading opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors an independent Taiwan, has been gaining strength on the island as an election next year approaches.