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China ties under strain ahead of Hu-Bush summit

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Apr 15: US ties with China are becoming strained over security and economic issues after a relative calm, presenting a difficult challenge as President George W Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao meet next week.

The two leaders are eager to keep disagreements over matters such as trade and China's military buildup from disrupting a relationship seen as central to international stability and economic well-being.

But experts expect only modest results from Hu's first presidential visit to Washington on April 20, and many are wary about the future as domestic political pressures grow for the United States to treat China as the next major adversary.

''US-China relations are in difficult shape,'' said Daniel Blumenthal, a former Pentagon official now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

''A lot of issues that had been submerged over the last few years have re-emerged, partly because the US Congress has taken the lead on a number of economics issues, which has soured things,'' Blumenthal told Reuters.

A major problem, according to Robert Kapp, former head of the US-China Business Council, is that centrists in Congress inclined to encourage US-China relations toward stability and cooperation have ''nearly evaporated'' as a force as they left Congress.

Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics, said the administration also is frustrated.

US-China trade and currency disputes are a main source of the current difficulties and the decline in domestic support for China, but Bush and Hu also face major security issues.

The Bush administration has criticized China's military buildup.

In a recently released national-security strategy, Bush signaled he increasingly sees China as a potential challenge to US interests.

Other sources of tension include Iran and North Korea's nuclear ambitions and Beijing's energy-driven ties with other governments at odds with Washington, including Venezuela, Sudan and Burma.

''The challenge this time is to show the American public that there's some productive output from this increasingly candid and strategic discussion between the two leaders,'' Michael Green, Bush's former senior Asia adviser, told a Center for Strategic and International Studies news briefing yesterday.

Failure to make progress on economic issues, Bergsten told the CSIS briefing, ''may undermine the overall relationship and then make it harder to work together on security concerns.''

Iran's announcement on Tuesday that it enriched nuclear fuel made its nuclear activities an even more urgent US-China summit topic. Washington, which suspects Iran is developing nuclear weapons despite Tehran's denials, is seeking tougher action including possible sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council.

Until now, Beijing has lined up with Russia to thwart sanctions or other punitive action, US officials say.

''This summit is a good opportunity to make the case why China should step up and join the US and Europeans'' in pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear programme, China expert Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution said in an interview.

Similarly, the United States would like to see China do more to persuade North Korea to return to stalled six-country negotiations on its nuclear program.

But on foreign policy in general -- including on human rights issues and the release of political prisoners -- ''there is a sense that the Chinese are not giving on anything,'' said Derek Mitchell, a CSIS Asia expert.

Hu almost certainly will raise the issue of Taiwan, the self-governed island Beijing insists must be unified with the mainland through force if necessary. But US officials and experts said they believe the situation is reasonably stable now and the summit is unlikely to produce movement.


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