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The White House declared Saturday that U.S.-China relations are "back on track" after President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin held an hourlong meeting covering recent controversies that have heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The clearest evidence of a thaw inSino-U.S. relations after Clinton and Jiang met was their decision authorizing the two nations to resume negotiations over China's desire to join the World Trade Organization, which sets rules governing international commerce.

"The two sides will strive to reach an early agreement," said Zhu Bangzao, a Chinese spokesman. "This was a very important meeting at an important time in U.S.-China relations."

White House officials said the two leaders agreed only to instruct their trade negotiators to resume talks as early as today on the stalled discussions, which were the main focus of the meeting.

"Our hope had been that Saturday's meeting would lead to the resumption of serious negotiations, . . . and that was the result," said Gene Sperling, Clinton's national economic adviser.

The leaders engaged in no substantive discussion of China's push for admission to the trade group, he added, and had no time line to agree on a deal.

"I think that there are enough issues that are on the table that I would not have significant expectations over the next several days," Sperling said.

The two presidents are among numerous world leaders now in Auckland for a two-day meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, an annual opportunity for representatives of 21 Pacific Rim economies to discuss trade and financial matters. The meeting opened today.

Sino-U.S. tensions increased earlier this year, particularly in April after Clinton rejected a tentative agreement hammered out by trade negotiators that would have granted China entry into the trade group.

He rejected the proposal even though Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji had made what many considered significant concessions, such as offering to phase out quotas on U.S. imports and reduce tariffs in several areas by 2005.

In May, relations were further strained after an errant NATO airstrike hit the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia during the air war over Kosovo, killing three Chinese. Beijing then cut off the trade talks altogether. The Chinese crackdown on followers of the Falun Gong religious sect also exacerbated relations.

After Saturday's Jiang-Clinton meeting, Chinese spokesman Zhu said that China could become a member of the trade group in short order if the United States takes a "flexible and constructive" approach in the upcoming talks.

In another move that pleased the Chinese, Clinton implicitly criticized Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui for suggesting recently that the island should have a "state-to-state" relationship with Beijing.

Clinton told Jiang that Lee's remark had "made things more difficult" for China and the United States, according to Sandy Berger, the president's national security adviser.

At the same time, Clinton defended U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and reiterated th long-standing U.S. warning that use of force by China against Taiwan would lead to "grave consequences."

"The president was very pleased with this meeting," Berger told reporters. "It was . . . a very productive, friendly, non-polemical and quite comprehensive meeting between the two leaders."

The session -- the first between Jiang and Clinton since June 1998 in Beijing -- appears to have set the stage for a resumption of bilateral discussions on a range of issues that have frayed relations between China and the United States, from the suppression of human rights in China to U.S. sales of weapons to Taiwan.

Clinton and Jiang each raised many of those issues.

"I would consider the relationship between our countries now back on track -- with, of course, many challenges still facing us," Berger said.

He acknowledged that Washington and Beijing "still have plenty of problems," but added: "The best way to deal with those issues is to deal with them."

Berger also noted that on some "large strategic war-and-peace issues," such as relieving tensions on the Korean peninsula and ensuring stability in South Asia, the interests of the two nations converge.

"This is a complex relationship between the most powerful country in the world and the largest country in the world, who have fundamentally different systems and serious disagreements," Berger said. "But we need to try to work through those for their common interests."

After the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, Clinton is scheduled to remain in New Zealand for a state visit.

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