AFTER months in the driver's seat of US-Chinese relations, Beijing has been thrown off balance by new overtures from the United States toward rival Taiwan.
On Sept. 9, China angrily protested an upgrading of unofficial ties between the US and Taiwan in what is the first policy shift since Washington broke with Taipei and established relations with Beijing 15 years ago.
The Clinton administration says it still maintains its ``one China'' policy dominated by ties with mainland China and does not foresee a major rift with Beijing.
But analysts say the move reflects a greater recognition of Taiwan's economic clout and mounts pressure on Beijing at a time when leaders are trying to check Taipei's growing international profile. Taiwan is the US's fifth-largest trading partner.
``We are much concerned about the actions that the US side has taken recently in violation'' of past agreements with China on Taiwan, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said.
``Taiwan remains a very emotional issue ... and closer [Taiwanese] ties to the US are viewed as a direct challenge to China,'' an Eastern European diplomat says.
The policy shift was undertaken as Beijing presided triumphantly over a recent warming in relations with the US. In June, President Clinton renewed Beijing's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status and broke the link between bilateral trade and improvements in China's human-rights record.
In August, Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown led a delegation of 24 US executives to China, playing down US criticism of human-rights abuses while enthusiastically courting new contracts for US business. In exchange, Beijing agreed to reopen discussions with Washington on human-rights issues.
Peter Tarnoff, undersecretary of state for political affairs, met with Chinese leaders in Beijing and stated that the US ``remains fully committed to the one-China policy.... We made every effort to explain our position. I think China now understands that the US has a consistent position that is not changing,'' he told reporters before leaving Sept. 13, describing the shifts as ``minor adjustments.''
Beijing has been pushing the US administration to agree to a presidential visit to China, although State Department officials say there are no immediate plans. The policy change toward Taiwan has resulted in a redesignation of the US office in Taipei to representative status and clears the way for high-level contact between US officials in Taipei and Taiwanese officials on economic and commercial matters. President Lee Teng-hui and other top Taiwanese politicians still will not be allowed to visit the US officially, although they can now ``transit'' through Washington.
Still, China is unnerved by Taiwan's successful moves toward quasi-independence and warned of a possible deterioration if the US broadens contacts with what Beijing considers a renegade province.
China has cultivated strong economic links to Taiwan and in August signed an agreement to defuse tensions with Taipei over a spate of hijackings and the mass murder of Taiwanese tourists in China in March.
But China has never repudiated its repeated warnings to use military force if Taiwan tries to declare independence. And with deep unease, Beijing has watched Taiwan make progress in campaigns to regain a United Nations seat lost when the US recognized China and, like China, to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade this year.
China also threatened to boycott next month's Asian Games if Japan allows President Lee to attend the sporting event.
After the US announced the Taiwan policy upgrade, US Ambassador to Beijing J. Stapleton Roy was summoned by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Huaqiu and warned that closer ties to Taiwan could be ``explosive'' and would be regarded by Beijing as a ``gross interference in China's internal affairs.''
China is also pressuring the US to follow up the recent visit by the business delegation and ease still-pending trade sanctions and ease other economic tensions. Mr. Brown recently suggested that the US would offer concessionary financing to US companies to compete with Europe, Japan, and Canada and win new business for the US.
Zhou Shijian, a senior Chinese trade official, called for an official end to the US ban on soft loans and credits and also urged it to lift prohibitions on high-tech exports imposed since the military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.
In an article in the official China Daily newspaper Sept. 11, Mr. Zhou was also quoted as prodding the US to officially cancel the MFN status review that US officials have suggested could become an automatic renewal.