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North Korea, Taiwan to Dominate Sino-American Relations

Last weekend, President Bush met Chinese leader Hu Jintao in Santiago, Chile, on the periphery of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell offered a brief, but upbeat assessment of Sino-American relations. We've got good relations with China; the best, perhaps, in decades," said Mr. Powell.

While analysts may quibble with Mr. Powell's optimistic viewpoint, they agree that on the whole, relations between Washington and Beijing are good.

As President Bush prepares to begin his second term in office, experts say two issues will continue to dominate relations between the United States and China in the months and years ahead: the curtailment of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and Taiwan.

Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, sees China using its influence on North Korea on the issue of nuclear weapons.

"China certainly can play a role and has to be part of it, for sure, because they have as much influence as any country with North Korea," said Mr. Hamilton. "That's not necessarily saying it has a huge amount of influence, but they certainly have more than we do. So any negotiation with North Korea is going to require not only the participation of South Korea, but of China and probably some other countries as well. "

The United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia are part of the six-party talks with North Korea aimed at resolving the nuclear crisis with Pyongyang. Several years ago North Korea withdrew from a 1994 agreement with the United States, and said it was re-starting its plutonium re-processing operations. Experts say Pyongyang may now be able to produce at least six nuclear weapons.

Just a few days ago, President Bush met Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Santiago, Chile. Both men agreed to work together to increase pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

David Lampton is a China Scholar with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He says the U.S. and China have different priorities when it comes to North Korea.

"The American priority is to: first, second and third priorities are to get rid of nuclear weapons, get rid of nuclear weapons and get rid of nuclear weapons - that is the U.S. agenda there," he said. "The Chinese's first priority is to maintain stability in North Korea, because if the regime imploded, China would get a large number, presumably as would South Korea, of refugees and neither society wants that. Also a war there could involve them and in any case, China is hoping to get investments into its northeast, which borders on North Korea, and instability there would hurt that. So I think the Chinese value stability in North Korea more highly than the U.S. The United States, sometimes, talks with a little bit of abandon, in the Chinese view, about regime change in North Korea. I don't think the Chinese want that."

Former U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley sees other Chinese concerns when it comes to North Korea.

"They've got this common border; they've got this socialist neighbor; they've got this Korean minority in Manchuria that they're worried about; they've got the Korean refugees flooding in; they're pumping money into, food into North Korea to get it to survive," said Mr. Lilley. "But they are very concerned about the weapons of mass destruction; perhaps not as concerned as we are, but it seems to me they could do more in getting the North Koreans to curb their weapons of mass destruction and using their economic leverage to achieve this."

Ambassador Lilley says China has been the driving force behind the six-party talks.

Taiwan is considered to be the most sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations. The U.S. position remains the same: Washington does not support Taiwan independence. The U.S. "one China" policy says both Taiwan and the Mainland are part of China, and Washington urges Taiwan and Beijing to resolve any differences in a peaceful manner.

But analysts say if the U.S. should ever come into conflict with a nuclear power, the most likely place would be the Taiwan Straits.

Davidl Lampton from Johns Hopkins says the political leaders in Taiwan are playing with fire.

"Taiwan's people and its democratic political process are rewarding people in the Taiwan political system who are pushing for more autonomy and more identity of Taiwan as separate from China," noted Mr. Lampton. "China's bottom line is that it is not going to tolerate a de jure independent Taiwan, and exactly where the Chinese red line is, can be debated. But I do believe there is a red line and Taiwan is skirting very close to it. And if there were conflict in the Taiwan Straits between the People's Republic of China and Taipei, the United States would be in a very difficult position because we have some historic obligation to the security of Taiwan: that obligation is not absolutely clear. There is uncertainty about what the U.S. would do, but it would be very hard for the U.S. to stand on the sidelines."

Mr. Lampton says with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism, the Bush administration doesn't need a flare-up in the Taiwan Straits to complicate matters even more.