For the first time since beginning its step-by-step improvement of relations with Peking, the Carter administration has surprised and irritated China by taking an apparently minor measure -- an exchange of diploamtic privileges with Taiwan.
Chinese Foreign Vice-Minister Zhang Wenjin called in US Ambassador Leonard Woodcock Oct. 15 to deliver a written protest -- the first since Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act 18 months ago.
The contents of the protest were not disclosed but are believed in general to follow the lines of a report by the official New China News Agency after the US-Taiwan agreement was signed Oct. 2. That report said the agreement was "an undisguised violation of the principles for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China."
The dispatch concluded that the agreement "will hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and give rise to widespread concern and indignation in China." The language of the dispatch was carefully chosen and intended to convey first that China cannot compromise on the fundamental issue of its full sovereignty over Taiwan -- an issue the United States has conceded -- and second that this is a matter that touches deep-rooted national feelings.
(The same is true of Taiwan. The government there does not claim to be independent of China but instead claims to be the true representative of all Chinese, including those on the mainland.)
Peking has been surpirsed by the action because it was the Carter administration that recently took a strong stand against Republican candidate Ronald Reagan's advocacy of more "official" relations between Taiwan and the United States.
Now, without apparently a word of prior explanation to Peking or even to its own embassy in China, the Carter administration seems to have given its blessing to an arrangement that, while not as far-reaching as Mr. Reagan's plan to exchange "official" missions, publicly restores a measure of "officially" to US-Taiwan relations.
On the face of it, the agreement is a private one between two nongovernmental organizations: the American Institute in Taiwan and the Coordination Council for North American Affairs.
These are the two organizations through which Washington and Taipei have conducted their supposedly nongovernmental relations since the US withdrew its embassy from the island following the full normalization of diplomatic relations with Peking. The agreement obviously has the blessing of the US government, because it gives diplomatic privileges to the members of the two organizations.
Only governments can grant diplomatic privileges, such as freedom from local taxation, immunity from legal processes, and the receiving of mail in unopened bags.
The State Department's explanation has been that the arrangement was authorized by the Taiwan Relations ACt (which Peking also opposes) and has been under negotiation for 16 months. The Carter administration hs taken action before that Peking has opposed, but it was always carefully explained in advance.
Washington has prided itself on a growing "convergence" of views with Peking on a widening number of global issues. But Washington's behavior in this instance gives the Taiwanese a propaganda opening, which they are expected to take full advantage of.