NEW YORK — President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin met for nearly two hours Tuesday in talks that produced no immediate results but that, according to U.S. officials, helped to smooth the rocky relationship between the two countries.
It was "a very good, very positive meeting, certainly the best of the three meetings [Clinton] has had [with Jiang] to date," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told reporters afterward.
Chinese government spokesman Chen Jian called the session "candid, friendly, positive and useful."
Administration officials said the two leaders made progress toward reviving some high-level dialogue between their countries in areas such as nuclear testing, military exchanges and cooperation on crime and narcotics.
Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord acknowledged, however, that China did not agree to resume the formal dialogue on human rights that it suspended earlier this year. At a press briefing, Lord repeatedly avoided mentioning the cases of any Chinese dissidents, such as imprisoned Chinese democracy advocate Wei Jingsheng.
"It's clear that the Administration got stiffed on human rights," said Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch/Asia. He said Clinton seemed to be avoiding the public appeals for the release of dissidents that he made two years ago. "This is a big step backwards," Jendrzejczyk said.
Clinton offered Jiang face-to-face assurances that the United States is not seeking to "contain" China or to prevent it from developing into a more powerful country, as some Chinese officials charged earlier this year.
It was the first meeting between the two leaders since Clinton's decision earlier this year to permit Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to make an unprecedented visit to the United States. That visit sent relations between Washington and Beijing plummeting to their lowest level in more than a decade.
McCurry said Clinton aimed to "return some measure of normalcy and stability to, arguably, one of the most important bilateral relationships that the United States maintains in the world."
Clinton and Jiang avoided stirring up any controversy after their talks, and their tone was formal and stiff. For the first 90 minutes of their meeting, each leader was flanked by three aides. For the final half an hour, much larger groups of U.S. and Chinese officials joined in.
The summit meeting was held in an austere rehearsal studio ordinarily used by ballet companies at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Outside, about 70 demonstrators stood behind barricades, holding signs that said "Free Tibet Now."
Both the setting and the atmosphere of the Jiang meeting contrasted sharply with Clinton's session with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin the previous day.
On Monday, Clinton and Yeltsin stood side by side, relaxed, at a news conference after their talks, with the American President doubling up with laughter as the Russian leader bantered with reporters. On Tuesday, after the Clinton-Jiang summit, there was no joint news conference; U.S. and Chinese officials gave separate accounts of what had happened.
The two leaders did not appear to break any new ground on Taiwan during their meeting. China has sought a promise that Lee and other top Taiwanese officials will never be admitted into the United States again, and the Clinton Administration has refused to make such a pledge.
Lord told reporters afterward that he thought the friction over Taiwan has eased. It is now "just one of many issues" between Washington and Beijing, he said.
But Chen, the Chinese spokesman, said Taiwan remained the "major and sensitive issue affecting relations" between Washington and Beijing. He said the Chinese president "wants to see no more incidents that interfere with and disrupt the steady growth of the relationship."
In his formal speech to the United Nations on Tuesday, Jiang underscored the importance of Taiwan to China. "Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory," he said. He also warned that the Beijing government must be the sole representative of China at the United Nations--which Taiwan has recently been seeking to rejoin.
The Jiang-Clinton summit occurred at a time when U.S.-China relations are being affected by political pressures in both countries.
Jiang is trying to establish himself in Beijing as the heir to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, while Clinton is trying to solidify his foreign policy credentials as he prepares to run for reelection next year.
Under these pressures, it was difficult to work out even the arrangements and site for Tuesday's meeting. China did not want to have Jiang come to Washington for anything less than a full state visit, with a formal banquet and red-carpet treatment. Clinton was not ready to offer that.