Peking — Both the United States and China are making a conscious effort to accent areas on which they agree while sidestepping -- at least for the time being -- such critical differences as the controversial sale of arms to Taiwan.
This is the main message to emerge thus far from talks Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. is holding here with China's top leaders.
It is all part of the US effort to see whether it can gain a cautiously stronger position with China nearly 10 years after former President Nixon's dialogue-opening trip to Peking.
Secretary Haig has been authorized to say, as he did in a toast, that President Reagan is committed to the "steady strengthening" of US-China relations.
The willingness of both countries to move closer together receives an assist from the Reagan administration's preoccupation in the foreign affairs field with what it sees as a growing Soviet global threat.
The biggest difference between the two nations at the moment is over US relations wih Taiwan. The US wants to continue selling arms to Taiwan. Peking has objected.
The Reagan administration sometimes gives the impression that it is not entirely sure how it should proceed on the thorny question of arms sales to China. American officials say it would be a decision of such far-reaching implications that Congress and US allies in Asia would have to be consulted before any move was made. But the Chinese have been saying that they are not interested in getting weapons from the US if it means tolerating a continued flow of weapons to Taiwan.
Despite their differences over Taiwan, the two sides have begun their talks by focusing on an issue where they are more in agreement: the Soviet military buildup. After Haig's first meeting with Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister Huang Hua, a senior American official reported that the two sides had reached a "significant degree of agreement" on the seriousness of growing Soviet military strength and ways in which it should be countered.
Many of the Chinese and American officials sitting across from each other at the Great Hall of the People in Peking June 14 had been involved over the past decade in the process of "normalizing" relations between the US and China. In his opening remarks, Haig spoke of the Chinese facing him as "old friends." He said that China was a place for which he had "great affection and respect."
The day ended with a banquet at the Great Hall of the People which included a consomme of silver agaric and pigeon eggs and duck stuffed with eight delicacies.
In his toast after the banquet, Haig said that the US considers China to be a "close and valued friend." He said that the two nations' interests are "parallel in many respects" and that their policies "often complement each other."
In his toast, Vice-Premier Huang Hua, too, emphasized that the two sides have "many common or similar views." But he also noted that there are differences in the two nations' social systems and ideologies. And he touched on the Chinese position in a few areas -- the Middle East, for example -- where their approaches differ.
While both sides apparently made an effort to sidestep their differences for the most part, at the outset at least, the subject of Taiwan remained a source of potential trouble. The Chinese press has been harsh in recent days in its criticism of any possible strengthening of US ties with Taiwan -- an idea that had been suggested more than once by White House officials early in the Reagan administration.
Some observers think that China's de facto leader, Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, may have been criticized within the leadership for having taken too lenient a position with the American on Taiwan. Thus the strong position now being taken on Taiwan by the Chinese may in part reflect Deng's need to appease potential adversaries within the Chinese leadership.
Some sources think that one purpose of Haig's trip to China is to help bolster the position of Deng Xiaoping vis-a-vis some of his more radical adversaries. Parris Chang, professor of political science at Penn State University, says in a paper being presented to a conference in the US this week that "however" powerful Deng may appear to have been since 1978, he has been only first among equals and has had to share his leadership role" with several other leaders at one time or another.
Under China's current collective leadership, Chang says, "Political power has been fragmented." Chang also thinks that the Chinese people are experiencing a crisis of trust and confidence in their leadership, which could make it more difficult to make compromises on emotional issues such as that of Taiwan.
How much do the Chinese leaders in Peking really care about eventually gaining control of Taiwan? Experts here say that Secretary Haig would be wrong to assume that the Taiwan issue is not one of great importance to Peking. They contend that it is one of those issues involving nationalistic sentiments that must be handled with the utmost care. To make the issue too much of a ublic dispute could lock the United States and China into irreconcilable positions. Indeed, some China watchers think that Peking, through its hardline statements on the issue in recent days, may have "boxed itself in."
On the issue of countering the Soviet Union, there appeared to be few differences, so far between the two sides. But the Chinese were puzzled by President Reagan's recent lifting of the partial grain embargo against the Soviet Union. They still seem to need reassurances from the Americans as to the steadiness and firmness of US policy toward the Soviet Union.
According to American officials, Secretary Haig has gone out of his way to emphasize that the Reagan administration intends to build American military strength and to counter not only the Soviet Union but also its "proxies" in Vietnam and in Cuba.