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Politics Complicate China-US Relations

The complex relationship between China and the United States will be tested this year, as both countries face leadership change, or potential leadership change. The first major challenge to the relationship, though, may come from possible leadership change resulting from presidential elections in Taiwan on Saturday.

Taiwan has been separately governed since Nationalist forces fled there in 1949, after losing the country’s civil war. China still considers the island its territory has threatened to use force to regain control if Taiwan declares independence. The United States has said it will help the island defend itself from an attack.

U.S. and China are seeking to minimize any uncertainty that may result from the Taiwanese election said Alexander Huang, a professor of strategy at Taiwan's Tamkang University.

"Both China and the United States would like to see the continuity of stability and peace across the Taiwan Strait, because both China and the United States will have a very busy political agenda this year," noted Huang. "So, I think that they wanted to see that the Taiwan election plays no negative impact on their own domestic political agenda.”

The Chinese government has refrained from making public comments about this round of Taiwanese elections, which is in sharp contrast to 1996. Tensions were heightened ahead of the polls then because China held military exercises around the island and then-President Bill Clinton sent two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups to the area.

In 2012, political considerations are taking center stage - both in China and in the United States.

The top Chinese leaders - including President Hu Jintao, National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo and Premier Wen Jiabao - are all expected to retire following a Communist Party Congress later this year.

At roughly the same time, in the United States, Americans will be voting for their leader. President Barack Obama could be re-elected or a candidate from the opposition Republican Party could be elected to replace him.

At the Pentagon earlier this month, Obama said his administration will focus on Asia, as one of its main military strategic priorities. “We will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region,” he said.

Even as U.S. military presence shrinks from other parts of the world, the Pentagon report says Washington plans to maintain large bases in Japan and South Korea, and deploy American military personnel to Australia.

The U.S. strategy also calls for countering potential attempts by countries like China and Iran to block American capabilities in areas like the South China Sea or the Strait of Hormuz.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin says the Pentagon's charges against China are groundless.

Liu says China’s military modernization is defensive and aimed at maintaining peace and prosperity in the region.

Sino-American tensions were heightened in recent years by what China sees as U.S. meddling in the South China Sea, where Beijing shares overlapping territorial claims with other countries in the region.

During recent visits to two of the claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam, U.S. officials sparked China's displeasure by stating that Washington has “national interests” in the South China Sea.

Hong Kong University visiting public administration professor Alejandro Reyes says he is not surprised China is upset by U.S. deployment in the region.

“If you are sitting in Beijing, the interpretation is “well, is the United States trying to contain China? or to create some kind of coalition of allies in the region that can oppose China?” This is troubling and I see from the Chinese perspective, it's natural. I think that they should be concerned,” Reyes stated.

Qu Xing, an international relations expert at the China Institute for International Studies, which advises the government, questions U.S. intentions and says he feels the United States has neglected the Asia Pacific region, but only in the past few years has once again increased its attention. Therefore, he adds, tensions have increased.

Another area of friction between the two countries involves economic issues, and American political candidates have found that China bashing can win voter support.

Critics say China keeps its currency, the yuan, artificially low to make Chinese products cheaper, which boosts Chinese exports and creates an unfair trade advantage.

Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential challenger targets China in his public comments and says he will take immediate action if elected.

“On day one, I will file, or I will, through an executive order, label China as a currency manipulator allowing us to put tariffs on Chinese goods that are coming into our country and killing American jobs in an unfair way,” he said.

Qu disputes the accusations, and points out that although the value of the yuan has gained more than 25% against the dollar in recent years, the U.S. trade deficit with China still grew.

He says he thinks the overall U.S. trade deficit will not change because Americans will still need to buy products from other countries.

Despite their disagreements, China and the United States are continuing high-level exchanges intended to strengthen their relationship. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently met with China's top leaders in Beijing. And Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to be named China's top leader later this year, is due to visit the United States in the very near future.