Among the problems that lie like potentially explosive land mines in the path of the Carter administration's new relationship with China is the unresolved question of $196.8 million in U.S. claims against the Peking government.
That amount is the total of claims by U.S. corporations and individual citizens for property and other assets seized by the Chinese communists after they took power in 1949.
The Chinese have a counter-claim agaist the United States for approximately $80 million in cash and property that has been frozen in this country since the 1950 entry of China into the Korean War.
The amounts involved on both side could turn out to be much larger. Individuals and firms who have had their claims against China certified under U.S. legal procedures are entitled to seek enterest of 6 percent a year on their lost property. This factor could swell the American demand to a total of $1.1 billion for the 30-year period involved.
Similarly, most of the frozen Chinese assets here are in accounts or securities held by U.S. banks, which have been able to use them for lending and other purposes without paying any interest to China. If the Chinese were to demand 6 percent interest for the years in which they were blocked from reciaiming assets, they could increase their claim by as much as $459.5 million.
In actuality, neither the State Department nor the claimants have any real expectations of receiving even full amounts on the original claims. Instead, those involved privately say that they expect that any settlement will involve a token, partial payment by China -- possibly with all or part of the frozen Chinese assets used to make settlement.
In the view of U.S. officials these opposing claims are not, by themselves, a major impediment to renewed U.S.-Chinese dipomatic relations or expanded business dealings.
But the officials concede, a prolonged failure to settle the claims disputes could add significantly to the controversy caused bys the administrationhs decision to recognize Peking. In particular, the administration is concerned that congressional opponents might use the claims issue as a weapon intheir fight to halt or circumscribe the opening toward Peking.
For example, one major obstacle to renewed U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba has been failure to resolve a $1.8 billion U.S. claim for property exporpriated by the Cubans.
Administration officials have said candidly that even if Washington and Havana dispose of other disputes, there could be no realistic expectation of renewed ties with Cuba until Havana acknowledges libility and makes acceptable restitution.
But, these officials add, the Chinese do not present the same problem. For one thing, they point out, the amount of U.S. claims against China is much smaller than that involved in the Cuban dispute.
In addition, the officials continue, unlike Cuba, which has refused to recognize the validity of any U.S. claims, the Chinese have expressed willingness to negotiate a resolution of the claims questions.
Chinese Vice Premier Teng Hsiaoping publicly has called the dispute "a small matter" that he would like to see disposed of as quickly as possible. When Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal visits Peking next month, one of the top items on his agenda will be an attempt to get negotiations on the claims started quickly.
The $196.8 million claimed by the United States is the figure arrived at by the Foreign Claims Settlement Commmission, an independent federal board that was authorized by Congress to consider claims against China and rule on their validity.
The comission, which completed its work in Jurly 1972, certified as legitimate 384 claims. It allowed claims from U.S. business firms and religious orders totaling $182.5 million and from private individulas amounting to $14.3 million.
The largest single claim allowed by the commission involves the Shangahai Power Co., a Boise-Cascade subsidiary that was found to have lost $53.8 million. By coincidence, Boise-Cascade also is the largest U.S. claimant against Cuba, having lost $267.6 million there through expropriation of its Cuban Electric Co. Subsidiary.
The company with the second largest claim agaist Cuba is International Telephone and Telegraph Corp., whose Cuban losses were certified at $130.7 million. It is also among the major claimants against China. The commission certified ITT's claims for property lost in China at $7.7 million.
Other principal corporate claims agaist China are Esso Stadard, 27 million; Caltex Limited, $15.4 million; Genrral Electric Co., $4.5 million; International Standard Electric Corp., $3.2 million; Western District Power Co., $1.7 million; Citicorp, $1.5 million,
U.S. officials said they do not know if any of the large corporate claimants have used their China losses as write-offs ot reduce U.S. corporate income tax liabilities. According to the Internal Revenue Service, corporations that did write off their losses and that subsequently receive compensation for lost assets will have the payments treated as taxable income.
While stressing the likelihood that any settlement will be partial, the officials conceded that they will be under heavy pressure from claimants and their congresional supporterss to get as much as they can.
As one U.S. official said: "Clearly, we're going to have to get a settlement acceptable to Congress. If we don't, it's certain to cause a lot of trouble for us when we have to go to Congress for money to found our activities in China and for trade preferences and other legislation involving out future dealings with China."