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Washington, Beijing See Relationship Improving

Diplomacy: Despite continuing differences, Christopher and China's foreign minister avoid open criticism at meeting.


UNITED NATIONS — After months of heightened Sino-American tension, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen proclaimed Wednesday that relations between the two countries have grown cordial and are improving.

With Qian at his side, Christopher noted that their Wednesday meeting was the third in five months since American and Chinese warships faced off in response to China's attempt to intimidate Taiwanese voters last spring.

"Our meetings have paid off in a marked improvement in our relationship," Christopher said.

For his part, Qian said the two countries have settled recent disputes over China's aid to Pakistan's clandestine nuclear weapons program, Chinese pirating of U.S. copyrighted compact discs and computer software and the annual debate in the U.S. Senate over renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status with the United States.

"Ring magnets [for making nuclear weapons], intellectual property rights and MFN have been resolved, one after another, in a proper manner," Qian said.

Washington and Beijing still harbor fundamental disagreements, especially U.S. criticism of China's human rights record and American complaints that China continues to assist the illicit nuclear and missile programs of Pakistan and Iran, despite Beijing's promises to stop doing so.

But the deep freeze that followed China's brutal repression of the democracy movement in 1989 is clearly over.

Addressing the human rights issue, Christopher avoided any direct public criticism of Chinese practices, saying only: "We want to make sure our differences are understood."

Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said that, during their private talks, Christopher urged China to release political prisoners and to allow international inspection of its prisons.

"What counts for us in human rights is progress, and we haven't seen enough of it," Lord said. "We have been disappointed, and we made that point again today."

"Of course there are still some problems and differences in our relationship, such as Taiwan," Qian said, "but the atmosphere in China-U.S. relations has improved substantially."

Christopher sought to reassure Qian that the Clinton administration has no intention of formally recognizing the independence of Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province. "We will continue to be guided by our firm commitment to the one-China policy," he said.

In their private talks, Qian complained about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Lord said.

He said Christopher told the Chinese official that Washington has no plans to change its arms sale policy.

At the same time, Lord said Qian told Christopher that the Chinese government "can understand" South Korea's anger at the incursion of a North Korean submarine.

"He said he hoped this will be an isolated incident," Lord said. Although China has pulled away from its once close relationship with North Korea in recent years, it is still unusual for Beijing to side with Seoul in such a dispute.

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