Dispute that needs defusing

CHINA'S surprise recall of its ambassador to the United States is a worrying sign that the row over the granting of a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui is starting to spin out of control.

Already, years of work spent improving relations across the straits have been caught in the crossfire, with Beijing postponing plans for a mini-summit between representatives of Taiwan and the mainland.

China and the US are now deprived of high-level diplomatic representation in each other's capitals, and the danger must be that the dispute will take on a momentum of its own. All it needs is a few ill-considered comments by a couple of congressmen for hostilities to escalate still further.

Even a temporary absence of ambassadors makes it much more difficult to repair strained relations. Recalling an envoy is relatively easy: sending him back is much more difficult - and China is unlikely to do this until Washington makes some gesture to atone for allowing Mr Lee into the US.

Yet there is little the US President, Bill Clinton, can offer, given the strong pro-Taipei sentiment in the Republican-dominated Congress. The Republicans forced Mr Clinton to grant the visa and they would oppose any fresh moves to appease Beijing.

Inviting President Jiang Zemin to Washington would be one option, especially given his recent involvement in China's policy-making on Taiwan affairs. But such an invitation would probably prove counter-productive, as he would be likely to receive a hostile reception from congressional leaders.

Any attempt to lift sanctions on arms sales and military technology transfers, which were imposed in protest at the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, would also run into strong opposition on Capitol Hill.

An apolitical gesture might be more feasible - such as sending the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to Beijing, perhaps on the pretext of attending the United Nations world conference on women to be held in the Chinese capital in September.

The most productive step from the American side would be for Washington to find some way of unequivocally re-iterating its continuing commitment to a one-China policy. The US has to do more to recognise Beijing's extreme sensitivity on the issue and accept that allowing Mr Lee to visit, only nine months after Washington upgraded ties with Taipei, has inevitably aroused suspicions about a change of course.

For its part, China should recognise that the Clinton administration is not a free agent in this matter. A better understanding by Beijing of the workings of the US Congress might go a long way towards defusing their present suspicions.

China must accept that Taiwan's democratisation and economic prosperity has changed the world's perception of the island state. Even with a one-China policy, it is difficult for the US to ignore the leaders of what is now a democratically-elected government.

Further visits from Taiwan are almost inevitable since, having once granted a visa to Mr Lee, it will be much more difficult for the US to reject such applications in the future. Instead of trying to bully Washington, Beijing would be better advised to learn how to react to these developments in a more measured way, rather than simply ensuring them even greater publicity.

Taiwan can also play a part in helping resolve the present row. Its wish to use its economic might to break out of international isolation is understandable. Yet it also wants better relations with the mainland, and should have realised that it was asking for trouble to send Premier Lien Chan on a secret visit to Europe so soon after Mr Lee's return from the US.

A self-imposed moratorium on fresh diplomatic initiatives for at least a few months would cost Taipei little, while allowing tempers across the straits to cool.

It will not be easy to resolve the present dispute. But, in recalling its ambassador, China has engaged in a low-cost form of protest, which need not lead to any permanent downgrading of ties if the situation is handled properly. That will only be the case if all sides now exercise restraint and show greater understanding for each other's sensitivities than they have in recent weeks.