BEIJING -- Just days after China declared that relations with the United States were "at their lowest ebb" in 16 years, preparations have begun for a possible fence-mending meeting this fall between President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, a senior U.S. official said here yesterday.
"We have too much at stake both in China and the United States to neglect this relationship and try to isolate each other," visiting Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff said.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen will have a chance to bolster that relationship beginning with a meeting in late September at the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Tarnoff said, likely to be followed by an October summit between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Jiang. Another presidential meeting is possible in November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Osaka, Japan, officials here said privately.
Mr. Tarnoff, the third-highest official in the State Department, met over the weekend with Chinese counterparts in an attempt to repair ties ruptured by conflicts over the just-released activist Harry Wu, trade and, most of all, Taiwan.
Already strained U.S.-Sino relations worsened in June with the "private" visit of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to alma mater Cornell University, which China interpreted as U.S. support of Taiwan's aspirations for independence.
The United States and China also disagree over China's continued nuclear testing, Beijing's alleged missile sales to Pakistan and trade issues.
"There are problems," Mr. Tarnoff said. "The situation in Taiwan is a recent example of considerable turbulence in the relationship."
Mr. Clinton's sudden reversal allowing Mr. Lee's visit caused Mr. Qian personal embarrassment after the Chinese official repeated assurances that Mr. Lee would not be allowed into the United States.
Mr. Tarnoff said that Beijing has yet to approve the proposed U.S. ambassador to Beijing, former Tennessee Sen. Jim Sasser, or to replace China's ambassador to Washington, who was recalled in protest after the Lee visit -- leaving the superpowers without top-level diplomatic representation. But other official contacts that had been suspended are about to resume, he said.
The conflicts between the countries have been inflamed by pressures from home, analysts say. The U.S. Congress' overwhelming support for Mr. Lee's visit, the experts say, forced Mr. Clinton to go back on his promise to bar the Taiwanese leader from his college reunion in upstate New York.
In turn, Mr. Jiang and Mr. Qian reportedly were criticized for Taiwan's diplomatic coup. China vented its fury with bitter personal attacks against Mr. Lee and military exercises designed to intimidate the nearby island, which China considers part of its territory.
The domestic backlash here has strengthened the standoff with Washington, analysts say.
"Jiang Zemin is under pressure from hard-liners to take a very strong, very nationalistic stance," said Stanley Rosen, a University of Southern California professor.
Beijing's official position inevitably influences popular opinion, Mr. Rosen said. Recent polls here show that the United States has fallen dramatically in popularity, especially among China's young people who believe that the United States blocked Beijing's bid for the 2000 Olympics and charter-member admittance to the new World Trade Organization.
Indeed, the Lee visit was portrayed as the latest in a series of U.S. moves to restrain China. The day before Mr. Tarnoff arrived in China, the state-run New China News Agency ran an anti-U.S. diatribe accusing Americans of starting "Cold War II" and trying to contain China's emerging power.
Beijing has repeatedly demanded that the United States take "concrete steps" -- never specified but believed to be a pledge that Taiwanese top officials won't be allowed further U.S. visits -- to make up for damaging the relations.
Mr. Tarnoff said he reassured his counterparts that future visits by Taiwanese officials would "have to be private, unofficial and personal," but he stopped short of barring any visits to the United States.
"I don't claim we had a meeting of the minds on the Taiwan issue, or other matters that we were discussing," Mr. Tarnoff said. "Rather than saying we turned the corner, I think we helped open up the process."
Mr. Tarnoff's visit itself -- which Beijing had rejected for several weeks -- signaled a slight thaw in relations. The release of Mr. Wu, a Chinese-American rights activist, and the announcement that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to China to attend the World Conference on Women early next month are two small steps in rebuilding ties, Mr. Tarnoff said. But, he said, they are just a beginning.
"While in substance our differences are not bridged, I think we did have a full airing of views," Mr. Tarnoff said. "There is commitment on both sides that there are other aspects of the relationship which we're determined to proceed to work on together -- notably to prepare the upcoming meetings of our foreign ministers and our presidents."