President Clinton and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, sought to end the chill in U.S.-China relations with an hour of face-to-face conversation today but made no tangible progress toward U.S. approval of China's bid to enter the World Trade Organization.
White House officials said the two leaders agreed only to instruct their trade negotiators to resume talks "as early as tomorrow" on the stalled discussions, which were the main focus of the meeting held on the fringes of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit conference here in New Zealand's largest city. They nevertheless said the talks put U.S.-China relations "back on track," and portrayed the need for more negotiations as the expected outcome of Clinton's discussions with Jiang.
"Our hope had been that today's meeting would lead to the resumption of serious negotiations . . . and that was the result," said Clinton's national economic adviser, Gene Sperling. The leaders engaged in no substantive discussion of China's push for WTO admission, he added, and had no timeline for agreement on the deal.
"I think that there are enough issues that are on the table that I would not have significant expectations over the next several days," Sperling said.
That muted assessment reflected difficulties that have plagued a relationship that soured last April after Clinton, uncertain of political support at home, at the last minute abandoned a sweeping package of concessions from China aimed at clinching a WTO deal and insisted on more negotiations. Weeks later, relations between Washington and Beijing sank into outright crisis after U.S. warplanes accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
Although U.S. officials have invested the most hope for their policy of engagement with China in trade, the White House was unable to offer assurances that China remains committed to the tariff reductions and other market-opening measures it put forward in April.
U.S. business leaders decried Clinton's rejection of that offer, which went far beyond any previous Chinese package of market liberalization measures and exceeded what has been required of other nations seeking entry to the group.
At the time, China's leaders promised to slash average tariffs to 10 percent, down from 17 percent, and to phase out restrictions on foreign ownership and control of ventures based in China. The measures surprised experts because they would have opened some of China's most sensitive sectors--including telecommunications, autos and oil--to global competitors.
Many executives and trade specialists had assumed that the main elements of that agreement remain on the table. After today's meeting, however, Sperling said only that Clinton and Jiang "both recognized that they want their respective trade negotiators to see how much progress they can make."
Eager to restore a mood of mutual understanding, however, Clinton told Jiang that he shares Beijing's dismay at recent statements by the president of Taiwan that relations between Taiwan and China should be conducted on a state-to-state basis. Clinton assured Jiang that there is no change in U.S. policy, which endorses the proposition that Taiwan and the mainland, although run by different governments for 50 years, make up one China.
Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, said the president told Jiang that Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, "had made things more difficult for both China and the United States." But Clinton also warned China that "there would be grave consequences" if Beijing seeks to make good its claim to sovereignty over the island through military force, Berger reported.
Clinton's formulation about "grave consequences" reflected long-standing policy. But so, too, did Jiang's response--that Beijing hopes for peaceful unification with Taiwan, but that it will not renounce the use of force if Taiwan takes steps to declare independence unilaterally.
Berger described the exchange--Clinton's first meeting with the Chinese leader in 15 months--as "productive" and "non-polemical." Still, the chill was palpable. Absent from today's encounter was any of the effusive praise Clinton lavished on the Chinese leader after returning from a trip to China in July 1998.
In the afterglow of that visit, Clinton hailed Jiang as a man of "vision and imagination and courage" who was slowly nudging his nation along the path of political freedom and market economics. "He can imagine a future that is different from the present," Clinton said at the time. "So my view is that the potential we have for a strategic partnership is quite strong."
In the year since, those hopes have not been realized. In addition to the May 7 Belgrade embassy bombing and bogged-down trade talks, China has continued to arrest and imprison political dissidents and launched a nationwide crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
"We seek to build a strategic partnership," said Berger. "As far as I know, [that phrase] has been used as an objective, not as a descriptive state of the relationship. We seek to build a strategic partnership. I think that's still an operative phrase."
CAPTION: Clinton receives a traditional greeting from New Zealand's minister of women's affairs upon arrival in Auckland for summit.