Hopes fade for thaw at US-China meeting and China meet Chinese and US to meet in slim hope of a thaw

The American Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, is due to meet his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, in Brunei tomorrow with expectations of an improvement in Sino-US relations about as low as they can be.

The foreign ministers will hold talks on the fringes of an Association of South-East Asian Nations regional security meeting, the first high- level contact since the present collapse in bilateral relations. Peking was enraged last month by the visit of the Taiwanese president, Lee Teng- hui, to the US. At the top of Washington's agenda, however, is the arrest in China of Harry Wu Hongda, the naturalised American human rights campaigner.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Shen Guofang, reiterated at the weekend: "The Taiwan issue is very important, very crucial ... It is up to them [the US] to take the concrete actions." On Friday, Mr Christopher restated the US policy on China and stressed that both countries bore the burden of trying to maintain stable ties.

"We recognise that the government of the PRC [People's Republic of China] is the sole legal government of China," Mr Christopher said. "We acknowledge the Chinese position that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China."

That received short shrift from China. "The US administration has repeated in words its adherence to the one-China policy. But it has violated the spirit and letter of the three Sino-US communiques," Mr Shen said, referring to the establishment of ties between the countries in 1972.

Analysts see little chance of any breakthrough in Brunei. "The meeting is important just because it is happening," David Shambaugh, reader in Chinese politics at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, said. "It is the beginning of what should hopefully be a continuous dialogue at least at that level, preferably at a higher level. But one should not expect too much out of that meeting. "

Sino-US relations are widely perceived as being at their most acrimonious since after the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Peking has privately defined the "concrete actions" which it wants from Washington, including an apology from President Bill Clinton over the Lee Teng-hui visit, and a promise it will not happen again - demands that the US will not meet. The Chinese "are the ones who have boxed themselves into a corner. They are the ones who have raised the stakes", Dr Shambaugh said.

While China focuses on Taiwan, the US is preoccupied by the fate of Mr Wu. Mr Shen said yesterday that Mr Wu's case "has nothing to do with China- US relations ... It is up to the legal system," though he did concede that it was not purely an internal Chinese affair "because he [Mr Wu] is an American citizen - but he violated Chinese law".

Bargaining over Mr Wu's predicament will centre on Peking's request for Hillary Clinton to head the US delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Peking in September. President Jiang Zemin would also appreciate an invitation to the US to coincide with the UN's 50th anniversary celebrations in New York that same month.

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