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Clinton, Chinese President Agree to Series of Visits

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin agreed today to a series of high-level visits over the next two years aimed at stabilizing the rocky U.S.-Sino relationship.

The announcement, which came after a meeting between the two leaders here, called for Vice President Al Gore to travel to Beijing during the first half of next year, followed later by presidential summits in Washington and Beijing in 1997 and 1998.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said the exact timing of the trips and who would visit first would be worked out by the U.S. secretary of state and the Chinese foreign minister.

“The meeting was constructive and moved this vital, strategic relationship forward,” said a senior Clinton administration official who attended the session.

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The commitment at the highest level for the summits constitutes an important advancement of efforts to consolidate U.S. relations with the Asian giant. It is the latest in a series of steps that have lifted relations from a near-crisis point last year following a U.S. decision to issue a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui.

That move enraged Beijing, which launched a series of provocative military exercises earlier this year, including missile firings in the Taiwan Strait. When the U.S. responded by deploying two aircraft carriers to the area, the incident took on all the earmarks of a Cold War standoff. China considers Taiwan part of its territory.

U.S. officials said the agreement on the exchange of visits was part of a broad discussion that went on for nearly 1 1/2 hours, half an hour longer than scheduled. They said the two leaders discussed issues of security, including tension on the Korean peninsula, trade and human rights, and spent a “considerable” amount of time on weapons nonproliferation, the officials said.

As he posed for photographers with Jiang prior to today’s meeting, Clinton rejected contentions of human rights groups that it was a mistake to meet China’s leader without first winning a commitment for easing political repression in China.

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“We’re doing the right thing having this meeting,” Clinton said.

Speculation of a summit announcement had been fueled by Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s successful trip to Beijing last week.

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Clinton’s meeting with Jiang was the most important in a hectic series of one-on-one talks with Asian leaders here on a day widely seen as the highlight of his 12-day trip aimed at underscoring America’s role as a Pacific power.

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Leaders have gathered here for Monday’s summit of the 18-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, known as APEC.

Later today, Clinton is scheduled to discuss trade and security issues with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and hold crucial talks with South Korean President Kim Young Sam that will be devoted to reviving efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. Those efforts were severely strained when North Korea sent a spy submarine into southern waters in September, setting off a bloody manhunt that left more than two dozen soldiers and civilians from both sides dead.

But the Clinton-Jiang meeting--their fourth--clearly dominated the day’s agenda, analysts said, coming at a time when the U.S. president seems intent on polishing his credentials as a statesman.

In recent days, Clinton has pointed to the need for U.S. leadership “in places like Bosnia”; spoken out on the need for nations to cooperate in fighting air and water pollution; and flown here to discuss security and economic issues with other heads of state.

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In addition to his bilateral talks with fellow leaders, Clinton will participate in the fourth APEC conference.

For Clinton--once taken lightly by some heads of state who preferred his older, more global-oriented predecessor, George Bush--the APEC summit is of special significance. In one of his first foreign policy initiatives, Clinton elevated the minister-level forum to summit status in 1993.

In the years since, APEC has developed an informal yet important political dimension, providing Pacific leaders a rare occasion to gather for individual meetings and larger sessions.

The Manila gathering takes place against a backdrop of extraordinarily tight security that has turned delegation hotels into fortresses and the city’s overcrowded streets into gridlocked parking lots.

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Security measures were heightened in the wake of last week’s discovery of hand grenades at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport and a small pipe bomb at a Subic Bay telephone booth, sporadic anti-APEC street protests and a U.S. State Department warning that it had information that a terrorist group “may be targeting” American officials.

The summit will be held Monday 70 miles northwest of Manila at Subic Bay, a onetime U.S. military facility that the Philippine government is turning into one of the largest container ports in Asia.

The meeting between Clinton and Jiang came as one more indicator that U.S.-Sino relations were recovering from their dangerous low point last year.

Administration officials noted that the two leaders established a good rapport during their previous three meetings and that Clinton plainly wanted to build on it as he tries to draw the giant Asian power into peaceful relations with its Pacific neighbors.

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Several positive developments in recent months have led to a new, albeit cautious, optimism about the future of Sino-American ties. Although U.S. officials believe an exchange of presidential visits would help consolidate this progress, human rights activists say they are appalled that Clinton has considered offering such intense high-level contact without first winning concessions from China to allow greater freedom of expression.

“He’s selling out on human rights; he’s abandoning it as an issue and getting nothing in return,” charged Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “The administration is just throwing away leverage it might have.”

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U.S. officials confirmed that Clinton raised human rights at the meeting with Jiang but did not bring up any specific cases of jailed Chinese dissidents as he did during his first meeting with the Chinese president three years ago. Human rights activists argue that the mention of specific individuals can help win their release.

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“The failure to call for the release of any political dissidents is an indication of how far human rights has fallen on the administration’s agenda,” Jendrzejczyk said.

A U.S. official admitted that “the two sides acknowledged differences on [human rights]. President Jiang emphasized economic rights.”

Chinese leaders have consistently maintained that, for a poor country, raising living standards is more important than securing political freedoms.

Times staff writer David Holley contributed to this report.

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