Tue, Aug 10, 2004 - Page 9 News List

China's Taiwan obsession increasingly infringes on other issues

By John Ruwitch  /  REUTERS , Beijing

Beijing's obsession with preventing Taiwan from advancing toward formal independence is starting to interfere with other diplomatic endeavors, including talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis, officials and analysts say.

Chinese officials deny linkage between the Korea talks and Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party considers a part of China. But US officials say the Taiwan issue is increasingly hogging the agenda and influencing Chinese policy, particularly when it comes to cooperation with the US.

"The increase in Chinese focus on Taiwan has really gotten to be an obsession," said a senior US administration official.

"With issue after issue it all comes back to Taiwan ... given the fact that everything else is tied to Taiwan it would be out of the ordinary for there not to be a linkage," he said.

The Chinese leadership has cranked up its rhetoric with respect to Taiwan over the past year or so in the run-up to, and aftermath of, Taiwan's presidential election in March.

Beijing says it hopes to see Taiwan peacefully unified with China, but threatens to attack if Taiwan declares independence.

Chinese leaders are convinced that Taiwanese President Chen Sui-bian (陳水扁), who won the contentious poll by a hair, is bent on making the nation officially independent. China also worries that the US, Taipei's biggest supplier of weapons and a major trade partner, is not sending Chen strong enough signals to back off.

Last month, US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Thomas Fargo, visited China separately and "all they talked about was Taiwan," said the White House official.

Some analysts believe Beijing policymakers are calibrating their position on North Korea to that of the US on Taiwan. In other words, they are asking: Why should we scratch your back if you won't scratch ours?

"Of course, the Chinese government would never say there is a link between the North Korea issue and the Taiwan issue, but this is a political fact ... China's position has changed delicately," said Shi Yinhong (石印紅), an international relations expert at Renmin University in Beijing.

In recent months, Shi said, China's policy has subtly shifted to be more sympathetic toward North Korea in the 21-month-old standoff over its nuclear programs.

Beijing has become more supportive of North Korea's proposal to freeze its programs. Washington says that is insufficient. China is also agreeable to the idea of North Korea pursuing peaceful nuclear programs, which the US opposes.

A senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official questioned publicly the US assertion that North Korea has a secret uranium-enrichment program that set off the whole crisis in October 2001.

Finally, Shi notes, China has gone from doling out roughly equal amounts of criticism and praise to North Korea and Washington, to being clearly more critical of the US.

"Of course, we cannot find any detailed evidence to prove that these kinds of changes have some relation with China's dissatisfaction with the US over the Taiwan issue," Shi said.

"But at least the change of China's approach over Taiwan and with the US is parallel with some changes in China's position over North Korea ... they happened at the same time," Shi said.

Some analysts, however, doubt China's leadership would concretely link the two issues.

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