Did she or didn't she?

A friend called to say that Roberta McCain, mother of presidential candidate John McCain, flew the Taiwanese flag out her apartment window last October on the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's victory in the Chinese civil war. She lives near the Chinese Embassy in Washington and is said to be sympathetic to the capitalist, self-governing island of Taiwan, which Beijing asserts should be reunified with the mainland.

"I'm not going to say whether I did or I didn't," she said, adding that talking about it might not help her son's campaign any. "The less said, the sooner mended. Have you heard that one? I'll tell you all about it in 20 years."

Joe McCain, her other son, reached Monday while campaigning in Fargo, N.D., didn't know whether his 88-year-old mother flew the Taiwan flag but said, "I would truly not be surprised. My mother is a free market type, a Western democracy type."

Joe McCain said his father was stationed briefly in Taiwan toward the end of World War II when the Navy used the island for refueling. He said his father, who became an admiral in the Pacific, was there again during the Korean War and eventually became "a personal friend" of the late Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader who lost to the Communists in 1949 and fled to Taiwan.

His mother "has always had great affinity for Taiwan," said Joe McCain. "She always favors the little guy against the big guy."

He hastened to add that "I'm not sure John would agree with that." Candidate McCain favors protecting the safety of Taiwan against Chinese threats of military action, Joe McCain said, but he favors open trade and engagement with China.

"My brother has never disapproved of anything my mother has done," said Joe McCain. "But I don't think he would hang a Taiwanese flag outside his window."

RAISING ANOTHER FLAG: Speaking of flags, Beijing has raised a red one about the possibility of the United States selling particular pieces of military equipment to Taiwan. It has targeted theater missile defense and Aegis destroyers.

Yet Clinton administration officials feel caught between Beijing's warnings and Taiwan's supporters in Congress, who want to sell the Taiwanese more military hardware. Taiwan's supporters believe their case is strengthened by the recent Chinese policy document threatening to use force against Taiwan if talks there drag on "indefinitely."

"What they don't understand is that their issuing this type of document makes this [the arms sales] more likely, not less likely, in the crazy way our two systems don't interact constructively," said one administration official.

The Chinese government was unusually specific about which pieces of equipment it finds objectionable, both during a visit to Washington by Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, a key military and foreign affairs policy official, and during a visit to Beijing by a group that included Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Gen. Joseph Ralston, deputy national security adviser James Steinberg and other top China policymakers.

How the visit to Beijing went is a matter of some dispute.

"I thought the tone was surprisingly good," said one U.S. official familiar with the talks. Another said, "The Chinese made all the points we expected them to make. There was no hectoring." Others say that Chinese officials repeated well-worn positions and lectured about the dangers of Japan.

"As is often the case, there was a repetition of well-understood positions. I don't think anyone changed anyone's mind," said Walter B. Slocombe, undersecretary of defense and a member of the Talbott group.

MISSILE DEFENSE DIFFERENCES: A major issue during the visit was national missile defense.

Some U.S. government China experts have been urging the Clinton administration to view national missile defense as a "trilateral issue." So far, the administration has focused on getting Russia, which signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, to agree to amend the pact to allow the United States to build a national missile defense system.

But China experts say the danger of fanning an arms race might be greater in Asia if China responds by increasing its relatively modest nuclear and missile arsenal.

During the Talbott-led mission, the American delegation didn't make any proposals to China. But one U.S. official said the Americans "tried to show why the national missile defense system is structured not to deal with them, but with the rogue-state threat."

As expected, there were no breakthroughs. Said one official, "They obviously don't agree it needs to be done."