China and the United States have avoided a showdown over US arms sales to Taiwan. But a permanent solution still eludes both governments, which have been negotiating the delicate issue since last autumn.
Following Washington's announcement April 13 that it was going ahead with a $ 60 million ''spare parts'' sale to Taiwan, China's Foreign Ministry called in US Ambassador Arthur W. Hummel Jr. April 14 to ''lodge a strong protest . . . against this act of infringing upon China's sovereignty.''
But Peking took no action to follow through on its often-repeated threat to downgrade diplomatic relations with Washington should the latter continue selling arms to Taiwan.
Instead, a Foreign Ministry statement here noted American explanations that the spare parts had been promised to Taiwan before last fall's talks began and that no weapons were involved in the sale. Most important, the Foreign Ministry statement quoted US assurances that ''the US would not consider military transfers to Taiwan while the two sides were continuing their bilateral discussions on a settlement of the question of US arms sales to Taiwan.''
Sino-American talks on the question of arms sales continue, according to the statement. But, ''If the US government should continue to disregard China's sovereignty and go back on the above assurance given to the Chinese side,'' the statement said, ''it must be held responsible for all the consequences arising therefrom.''
Reading between the lines of Chinese and US statements, observers see evidence of a desire on both sides to avoid a showdown and to continue to seek a compromise.
Washington's announcement took the form of a notification to Congress, as is required by law, that it intends to sell Taiwan $60 million worth of military spare parts, ''to support US origin aircraft now in Taiwan's inventory.'' A State Department spokesman stressed that ''no weapons of any kind are involved.''
By law the Reagan administration must notify Congress of any foreign military sales valued at more than $50 million. If Congress does not object within 30 days, the sales may proceed.
The administration did not clarify the discrepancy between the $60 million it says it is selling and a $97 million figure cited in a ''prenotification'' to congressional committees last December.
There is speculation that the original $97 million package may have included weapons that were subsequently dropped to show the Chinese that the deal consists exclusively of spare parts.
Theoretically, as long as any single weapons sale does not exceed $50 million , the administration is not required to notify Congress and hence to make a sale public. It is the public announcement of arms sales to Taiwan, as much as the actual sales, that China finds so difficult to accept.
Standing on principle, Peking says that such sales violate Chinese sovereignty. They ask how the US would feel if some foreign power sold arms to Hawaii or another American state in rebellion against the federal government.
Congress, for its part, is unlikely to accept for long a situation in which repeated sales of military weapons in batches of less than $50 million are made to any foreign customer. This would violate the intent of the law.
There is still urgent need for the US and China to agree on how to resolve the arms sales dispute. There is an apparent contradiction in the American position. Washington has accepted Peking's sovereignty over Taiwan while at the same time it is committed legislatively to continue supplying Taiwan with defensive arms.
If the US unilaterally pledges to reduce arms sales to Taiwan so long as the Taiwan Strait remains peaceful, would Peking ''take note'' of the pledge while still vociferously opposing American arms sales to Taiwan? Eventually it may be a fudged solution of this kind, rather than any clearcut resolution, that keeps Sino-American relations from plunging over the precipice of mutual denunciations.