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China visit tests U.S. ambiguity

From CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's policies are causing alarm in Beijing.
Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's policies are causing alarm in Beijing.

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(CNN) -- Ever since Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit Beijing, the relationship between the United States and China has been underpinned by a masterpiece of diplomatic ambiguity.

The United States has been willing to accept, in principle at least, that Taiwan is part of China.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's four-day visit to the United States will test this ambiguity to the full, especially when he meets U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington.

Taiwan has a freely elected president, Chen Shui-bian, who rejects Beijing's claim the island is a breakaway China province and believes it should be an independent country.

Running for re-election, Chen has made separation from China his central campaign theme, and has called for a referendum on election day to advance that goal.

It is a step Beijing views as a thinly disguised move towards independence, a move which it has already threatened to use force to prevent.

And the Chinese military, which fired missiles near Taiwan during the island's 1996 presidential campaign, has warned it would consider such a move grounds for war.

The Bush administration, Taiwan's main weapons supplier, has vowed to defend the island if China attacks and the escalating tension is very bad news.

"George Bush doesn't need any other crisis in his in box at this stage of the game. It's especially true when the U.S. and China are working very closely together on North Korea and when the U.S. is also distracted in Iraq," says Kenneth Lieberthal, former National Security Council Asia expert.

"We simply don't need another area of tension in this part of the world, in East Asia, at this time."

Fueling Washington's concern is a widely held view that Chen is deliberately trying to provoke Beijing to win votes.

Amid Chinese demands that Washington rein Chen in, his call for a popular vote on issues affecting China triggered a blunt warning from the United States.

"We would be opposed to any referenda that would change Taiwan's status or move towards independence, " U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says.

But this view runs counter to Bush's own calls to expand democracy around the world.

It has angered pro-Taiwan conservatives in Washington, and it leaves Bush juggling a series of sharply conflicting pressures as he prepares to meet China's visiting premier.

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