The top U.S. envoy to China said today that American relations with Peking had "improved considerably" in the last three months despite no sign of an agreement on the issue of Taiwan.
Ambassador Leonard Woodcock, chief of the U.S. liaison office in Peking, said that since early November when he returned from a trip to th United States, "the day-to-day relations with the Chinese hve been improved considerably. We have reduced whatever distrust existed and its very clear both governments want normalization.
"I have had contacts on the ministerial level, with the minister of sports and the head of the central bank, that we have not had before. At all these meetings there was a cordiality that was very encouraging."
Interviewed after attending a two day State Department conference here for U.S. ambassadors in Eash Asia, Woodcock gave the most optimistic official assessment of Sino-American relations heard in recent months. U.S. officials in Washington have been saying privately that the Carter administration is too preoccupied now with issues like the Panama Canal to make hard decisions on China, but Woodcock said he had a growing sense the Chinese relized this and were working to improve ties anyway.
Woodcock said that when some Chinese leaders publicly criticized Washington for footdragging following Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's August trip to Peking, "I was afraid things were bogging down."
But meeting between Vance and Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua at the United Nations in late September helped clear up misunderstandings and set relations back on track, Woodcock said.
Woodcock did not indicate that any significant progress had been made to resolve the Taiwan issue. "I believe there is a strong desire on the part of both governments to normalize relations, but both have individual problems that tend to be overriding."
Peking demands that Washington break all diplomatic and military ties with the nationalist Chinese island of Taiwan. President Carter and important members of the U.S. Congress say they cannot do that without an assurance that the Chinese will not attempt to take the island by force, but Peking considers Taiwan part of its territory and refuses to make any such promises.
Even without an agreement on Taiwan, trade and cultural contacts have continued between the two nations, many U.S. petroleum experts are in Peking attempting to negotiate contracts for sale of drilling equipment and a major Chinese oil delegation has just arrived in the United States at the invitation of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Woodcock has made no secret of his strong support for full diplomatic relations with Peking. He often mentions his belief that Asia would have been more peaceful in the last 30 years if Washington had quickly recognized the Communist government that took power in Peking in 1949.
Woodcock was appointed U.S. envoy to China last year after retiring as president of the United Auto Workers union and has no extensive experience overseas. But diplomats and Journalists in Peking say they have been impressed by the speed at which he has mastered the China issue and the care he has taken in any public statements about it.
He said when he arrived in Peking in July the Chinese had been annoyed by Carter's delay in replacing the outgoing liaison office chief, Thomas Gates, and uncertain about the new administration's policy toward China. Woodcock said he thought Vance's Peking trip "went quite well judging by the atmospherics and its limited objectives. Essentially all that we set out to do was to recreate the atmosphere that had disappeared."
But shortly after Vance had returned home, Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-Ping told a group of visiting American publishers that the Vance talks had been a "setback." Woodcock said such remarks by Teng and other Chinese were designed to "correct the record" after some U.S. press accounts had suggested Peking was softening some of its Taiwan demands.
One such report of substantial progress in the talks, based on interviews with White House officials who did not go to Peking and published in the Hearst newspapers, is thought to have particularly upset the Chinese.
Woodcock said he attended the U.N. talk with Huang Hua, took a vacation, then returned to Peking to find the atmosphere much improved.
Asked if Chinese understand the U.S. preoccupation with Panama and other issues, Woodcock said: "The staff at the Chinese liaison office in Washington is very good and that staff lets Peking understand that we have some difficulties. I'm personally encouraged by everything that's going on."
As for the Chinese refusal to disavow force against Taiwan, Woodcock said, "When you ask a sovereign government whether they are prepared to disavow the use of force against one of their own provinces, what do you expect they to say? Even if there is no thought of using force, they can't say that, either on the record or off the record."
Nonetheless, Woodcock added, "the American people will demand some assurances on Taiwan. How that will be done I don't even want to speculate."