WASHINGTON — A senior Clinton Administration official opens talks in Beijing today amid signs that, with activist Harry Wu freed from a Chinese jail, the United States may be ready to make at least minor concessions to Beijing on the subject of Taiwan.
China is now likely to pressure the Administration to reciprocate for its gesture in releasing Wu by giving some new assurances about Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory.
For months, the Administration has been refusing to apologize for permitting Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit his alma mater in Upstate New York in June. But there was a hint of new flexibility in the American position on Taiwan when the Administration announced this weekend's fence-mending mission to China by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff.
The State Department's formal announcement of Tarnoff's visit said he will talk with Chinese officials about "bilateral, regional and global subjects, including Taiwan."
That is a change from previous announcements of such talks that have not mentioned Taiwan.
"We've said after the fact that Taiwan was raised as an issue" in talks with China, observed Douglas Paal, who served as director of Asian affairs on President George Bush's National Security Council. "I don't know that we've ever said it in advance, because it would be contrary to the assurances given to Taiwan by several American presidents."
One U.S. official acknowledged that the discussion of the Tarnoff visit represented a change from the past but called it "a slight concession to reality on our part." Regardless of what formal announcements have said, Washington and Beijing have talked regularly about Taiwan.
The announcement also seems to depart from the official American position, dating back several administrations, that the United States will not negotiate with Beijing about Taiwan's situation because it believes Taiwan and China should work out their differences themselves.
In 1982, after agreeing to restrict U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the Ronald Reagan Administration sent assurances to the Nationalist government in Taipei. They included a promise that Washington would not undertake any mediation between Beijing and Taipei or pressure Taiwan into negotiations with China.
It is unclear exactly what Tarnoff, who will meet today with Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Sunday with Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, can offer Beijing to soothe China's anger about the Lee visit to the United States.
China has insisted that the Administration not only apologize for permitting Lee's trip but also promise that Taiwan leaders will not be admitted into the United States in the future. Clinton and his aides have refused to give such assurances. "We're not going to say, 'Never again!' which is what the Chinese want," observed one Administration official.
Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the RAND Corp., said, "I don't see how sophisticated Chinese officials think they can get the United States to apologize."
Yet while refusing to voice regrets, Administration officials have acknowledged publicly that Lee's visit was "unusual" and not the sort of thing that would occur regularly.
That seems to leave great leeway for negotiations, in which Tarnoff could make it plain that the president of Taiwan won't return to America any time soon.
Lee was originally invited to attend a meeting of the U.S.-Republic of China Economic Council this fall in Alaska. But he later announced that he would not attend, and there were signs that the Administration would not have given him a visa such a short time after his June visit to Cornell University.
Still unclear is the extent to which other Taiwan officials will be allowed to visit the United States in the future. In the past, for example, Taiwan Foreign Minister Frederick Chien has traveled to the United States but not to Washington. "I don't think that what we're doing is negotiating about Taiwan," said one State Department official. "What we're talking about is their [China's] concern over the [U.S.] visits policy."
Any new concessions the Administration makes to China about Taiwan could be overturned on Capitol Hill. The Administration decision to admit Lee followed adoption of congressional resolutions, with the House voting 360-0 and the Senate 97-1 in favor of his trip. If Administration officials "do something significant that is really detrimental to Taiwan, I don't think it'll stick in Congress," said Robert Sutter, a China specialist for the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service.
After Lee's visit, China responded by cutting off high-level contacts with the United States and by recalling its ambassador to Washington. It also refused, for several weeks, to accept the Administration's offer of a visit by Tarnoff.