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U.S.: Taiwan, Trade Top the Agenda As Bush Meets China's Wen In Washington

Taiwan, North Korea and trade are set to be at the top of the agenda when U.S. President George W. Bush welcomes Chinese Prime Minster Wen Jiabao to the White House today for their first meeting.

Washington, 9 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Although the U.S. and China still disagree about a lot, their improved relationship will take center stage today when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao meets U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House.

Disagreements between Washington and Beijing remain the order of the day on a host of issues, including North Korea, human rights, Taiwan, and trade. But officials and analysts say the positives outweigh the negatives in what is emerging as one of America's top commercial relationships.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan told a briefing yesterday that Bush looks forward to establishing a personal relationship with Wen.

"The president looks forward to discussing North Korea, the war on terrorism, proliferation and other issues, and global peace and stability. And Premier Wen does oversee the Chinese economy, and the president and his senior economic team will talk with him about the increasingly important bilateral trading relationship, as well as global economic issues," McClellan said.

Washington has a $120 billion trade deficit with China. Before coming to Washington, Wen visited the Wall Street Stock Exchange in New York, ringing the opening bell yesterday in a symbolic gesture of the importance of business between the two countries.

According to Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, a private research organization, trade is one reason why relations between the United States and China have been improving since the first year of the Bush administration, when tensions soared after an American spy plane had to make an emergency landing in China.

"Indeed, the relations were at their worst point since the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989. Since then, and especially since [the terrorist attacks of] 9/11, there's been closer and closer cooperation between the U.S. and China, although there still are some disagreements over crucial issues," Carpenter said.

Trade has led to some tensions. The U.S. administration put quotas on certain Chinese textiles and apparel last month and is threatening to levy duties on Chinese television sets. Disputes over Chinese furniture and barriers to U.S. soybean sales in China are also probable.

The Bush administration also accuses Beijing of keeping its currency artificially weak, giving its exports a 40-percent advantage over American products at the expense of U.S. jobs. Treasury Secretary John Snow said on 1 December that the administration will press China to make the yuan stronger.

But Wen is expected to hold firm against any swift moves on the yuan.

Speaking yesterday in New York to business executives, Wen acknowledged the trade differences but chose to emphasize the positive aspects of the U.S.-China relationship.

"In recent weeks, China and the U.S. have been coping with some differences and frictions over the trade issue. As such, my current visit has been given rather intense attention. Let me first assure you that I have come to this country to seek friendship and cooperation, and shall not and will not fight a trade war," Wen said.

None of the disagreements is expected to take any luster off the flurry of business activity between the two countries, however. Indeed, Wen is expected to sign a deal in Washington to buy five Boeing 737 aircraft.

What is generating concern are the issues of Taiwan and North Korea.

China continues to rebuff U.S. efforts to get Beijing to pressure North Korea into reaching a deal to give up its nuclear weapons program.

As for Taiwan, yesterday the United States sought to defuse tensions between China and the island, urging Taipei not to take unilateral steps toward independence.

U.S. officials also said Washington is making clear to China that U.S. opposition to any independence moves by Taiwan should not be seen as a green light for Beijing to launch military action against the island. U.S. officials acknowledge their position is a difficult one to straddle.

China is concerned that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian is edging toward independence. Chen has said he will push for a national "defensive" referendum, which has prompted Chinese military officials to threaten war.

Wen is reportedly seeking reassurances from the United States that it is clearly opposed to Taiwanese steps toward independence.

Human rights was once one of the hottest issues in Washington when it came to America's relationship with China. But while McClellan says Bush will engage Wen on human rights and religious freedom, analysts say those issues now take a backseat in the U.S.-China relationship.

Carpenter puts it this way: "Human rights will be brought up, but it will almost be a formality by U.S. officials. Washington has determined that human rights will not be an issue that torpedoes U.S.-Chinese relations."

Yesterday, a U.S. government advisory panel on religious freedom said it had postponed a visit to China for the second time this year because Beijing refused to allow it to hold meetings in Hong Kong.