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U.S. scurries to escape diplomatic jam over Tibet

With only a week to go before the visit of China's president to the United States, the Clinton administration finds itself in a diplomatic predicament of its own making over its pledge to appoint a "special coordinator" to oversee American policy toward Tibet.

The appointment is bringing protests from Beijing, which regards the planned office as interference with its internal affairs, while members of Congress are accusing the State Department of dithering. The administration, caught in the middle, is scrambling to avoid a confrontation just as President Jiang Zemin arrives for a weeklong tour of America, starting on Sunday."The question is: Is there a way to deal with this appointment without poisoning the overall atmosphere of the summit?" asked Jonathan Pollack, a senior adviser at the Rand Corp.

Under pressure from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced three months ago that she would create the office to raise the profile of Tibet in the making of foreign policy. The problem, diplomatically, is that she pledged to do so by Nov. 1, the final day of Jiang's visit, which both sides intend to be a culmination of months of efforts to improve relations.

With the visit and deadline approaching, the State Department has yet to announce an appointment, though Albright's spokesman, James Rubin, said she would make it as promised.

But other officials in the department and at the White House have strongly suggested - in interviews and in discussions with members of Congress - that the appointment will be put off until after Jiang's visit or at least after the Washington part of it ends on Oct. 30.

While the administration has sought to engage China's Communist government on a variety of fronts, a vocal faction in Congress has accused it of putting pragmatic concerns like trade over issues of principle involving human rights and religious freedom.

Tibet, which has sought a greater degree of autonomy from China since Chinese troops violently established Communist rule over the region beginning in 1950, has long been a sensitive subject for the Chinese. The debate over creation of the position comes as awareness of Tibet's cause has mushroomed here, in part through popular depictions in Hollywood.

An appointment on the eve of the visit, the administration officials said, would almost certainly be seen by the Chinese as an affront to Jiang. And that could upset the progress the administration hopes to make on a variety of matters, including a pledge by China to stop selling missiles and nuclear technology to countries like Iran.

"It definitely is not very good for the atmosphere," an administration official said.

As Jiang prepares to be the first Chinese leader to receive red-carpet honors in Washington since 1985, he knows success on the road is crucial to his ambitions at home.

Jiang has polished his English and consulted aides and U.S. diplomats on how to handle hostile demonstrations. The Communist Party chief is even thinking of ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

A smooth performance during his eight-day tour will give him the luster of an international statesman and quiet detractors in his party. It will send a strong signal to international business that Washington supports China's rise and help steady the flow of foreign investment Beijing relies on.

Jiang's trip aims to rekindle the traditional friendly feeling between the Chinese and American people, Chinese officials say. That kind of goodwill abounded when Deng Xiaoping barnstormed the United States in 1979 after Beijing and Washington opened full, formal ties.

Jiang can expect a hand from his summit partner. President Clinton's much attacked policy of "engagement" with China - an attempt to discuss human rights abuses, trade, Taiwan, nuclear proliferation and other problems without letting disagreements derail relations - is also at stake.