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Commerce carries the day

Both sides got the big things they wanted at Wednesday's U.S.-China summit meeting.

President Clinton got the assurances he said he needed to allow the sale of billions of dollars in U.S. nuclear power equipment to China. Chinese President Jiang Zemin got yet another public pledge from Washington that it wouldn't support _ not even indirectly _ independence for Taiwan, the island of 21-million people China claims as part of its sovereign territory.

There were other signs of progress toward improving U.S.-China relations, to be sure, but they mainly involved atmospherics or straight commercial deals such as a contract for the Boeing company to sell China 50 airliners worth $3-billion. On the tougher questions of human rights and lowering China's barriers to freer trade, Clinton got stiffed, bluntly and in public. On the issue of easing China's admission to the new World Trade Organization, Clinton stiffed Jiang, also bluntly and in public.

If that wasn't enough, Jiang also got an earful from thousands of demonstrators who gathered across the street from the White House throughout the day to protest Chinese policy on human rights and especially Tibet, the mountain territory it overran almost 50 years ago.

But as is customary at these gatherings, both the U.S. and Chinese sides called the summit a success. Among other things, they said it had helped heal the breach that opened between Washington and Beijing when Chinese troops killed hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square eight years ago.

If there was one truly big deal coming out of this latest U.S.-China gathering, it was the one allowing the sale of U.S.-made nuclear reactors to China. With its population of more than 1.2-billion people and an economy growing at double-digit rates, China's most pressing need in the coming decades will be abundant, non-polluting sources of energy.

It has chosen to provide that through nuclear power plants, and the Chinese market for them is estimated at more than $50-billion. Assuming the deal gets by wary opponents in Congress, the big winners will be U.S. nuclear reactor makers such as Westinghouse and General Electric, both of which are already lobbying hard for its approval.

But even though Congress is unlikely to block the deal, the debate on the controversial issue was already under way Wednesday. Opponents were saying that Clinton hadn't really gotten the assurances he needed that China would stop supplying nuclear technology to countries such as Iran and Pakistan.

Under U.S. law, American companies cannot sell sophisticated nuclear equipment to China unless the president certifies to Congress that Beijing isn't helping countries develop nuclear weapons. Despite intense lobbying by U.S. reactor builders, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush felt they could not make such a certification.

Until this summer, Clinton was getting hard evidence from his own intelligence agencies that, despite its repeated public denials, China was indeed shipping sophisticated nuclear technology, as well as missile delivery systems, to Iran and Pakistan.

But on Wednesday, Clinton said China had given him "clear assurances" that it had ended its nuclear cooperation with Iran and Pakistan and would abide by agreements limiting the spread of missile technology as well. Even so, Clinton refused to go into details when pressed at a news conference about the exact nature of these latest Chinese assurances.

"Well let me say, first of all, I am completely convinced that the agreements we have reached are sufficiently specific and clear that the requirements of the law will be met," Clinton said.

This almost certainly will not satisfy critics in Congress. The critics, from both the Democratic and Republican parties, have accused Beijing of repeatedly lying about its sales of nuclear technology or simply breaking its promises to stop doing it.

Less controversial, at least in Congress, will be Clinton's new pledge that Washington wasn't in any way encouraging the independence movement in Taiwan, off China's southeast coast.

The United States, Clinton said, was standing by the so-called "one-China" policy it adopted more than 25 years ago. Under this policy, Washington fudges the question of sovereignty by saying that both Taiwan and the mainland are parts of the same country and that the two sides have to decide peacefully, between themselves, which rival government is legitimate. But even though Clinton repeated the "one-China" mantra publicly on Wednesday, Jiang refused to commit China to solve the issue peacefully.

"We do not commit to renounce the use of force," Jiang told reporters, "but this is not directed at the compatriots in Taiwan but rather at the external forces attempting to interfere in China's internal affairs and at those who are attempting to achieve separation of the country or the independence of Taiwan."

Though Jiang didn't say what he meant by "external forces," his reference seemed to be Clinton's decision to dispatch two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait last year when China threatened the island with ballistic missile tests.

That touchiness over outside interference in China's affairs surfaced again when the subject of human rights came up. And yet again when Jiang was challenged over his refusal to release political dissidents from prison as a good-will gesture to Washington.

"On issues such as human rights," the Chinese leader said testily, "discussion can be held on the basis of non-interference in the internal affairs of a country." In other words, he considers the issue none of America's business.

As for releasing political prisoners, Jiang said he was the president of China, not a supreme court judge. "This involves China's criminal law and will be resolved gradually according to the legal procedure by the court of China."

Jiang's snub was especially notable because it came shortly after Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, said that political prisoners and China's human-rights abuses were the main subject of a 90-minute meeting the two men had at the White House on Tuesday night.

But on Wednesday, Clinton had a public rebuke of his own to deliver when he confirmed that Washington would continue to oppose China's immediate admission to the World Trade Organization. Beijing, the president said, was continuing to protect its domestic markets with tariff barriers against U.S. goods.

"Just as China can compete freely and fairly in America," Clinton said, "so our goods and services should be able to compete freely and fairly in China."

China is running a trade surplus of about $44-billion with the United States, much of that because it restricts U.S. imports to protect local industries.

But despite all these differences, the U.S. and Chinese sides seemed determined to put the best face possible on Jiang's visit. Part of that effort was an elaborate state dinner in the White House's ornate East Room attended by the usual politicians and many of the highest rollers in U.S. business.

Among them were the chairmen or chief executive officers of companies such as IBM, Xerox, AT&T, Disney, Time-Warner, Boeing and Mobil _ not to mention Westinghouse and General Electric, the two companies that stand to profit most from the latest U.S.-China understandings.

And even as the guests wolfed down their chilled lobster and pepper-crusted Oregon beef with California wine and champagne, the noisy anti-China demonstrations continued across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park. Among the protesters earlier in the day was actor Richard Gere, a long-time advocate of Tibetan independence, now starring in a movie highly critical of China.