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Sino-U.S. shadow over nuke talks

By China Analyst Willy Lam for CNN

• Analysis: What are the options?
• Six-nation talks: Where they stand
• Interactive: N. Korea military might
• Timeline: Nuclear development
• Interactive: The nuclear club
• Satellite image: Nuclear facility
• Special report: Nuclear crisis
North Korea
Nuclear Warfare

(CNN) -- Deteriorating Sino-U.S. relations over Taiwan have cast a shadow over the six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis in Beijing this week.

Chinese diplomatic sources have indicated it is difficult for Beijing "to do business with Washington over North Korea" because the Bush administration has repeatedly let China down over the issue of reining in Taiwan separatism.

Among participants in the six-party talks -- the third such round of discussions that began last August -- China is recognized as the only country with enough clout to oblige the Kim Jong Il regime to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has at least privately made it clear to Washington that a key condition for China putting pressure on its "lips-and-teeth" North Korean ally is the White House helping Beijing stop the pro-independence gambit of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian.

Since Chen's re-election last March, Beijing has accused Washington of providing both military and diplomatic support to the "renegade province."

For example, U.S.-Taiwan military ties have become more intimate.

A delegation of senior Taiwan politicians is currently in the U.S. for arms-procurement talks, while a Pentagon officer in charge of Asia-Pacific affairs, General John Allen, is due in Taipei next month for consultation to boost Taiwan's defenses.

On the diplomatic front, U.S. President George W. Bush last week signaled his support for Taiwan gaining observer status in the World Health Assembly.

'Double dealing'

While Chinese cadres and diplomats have criticized Washington for "sending the wrong signals to Taiwan," state-run media, reflecting internal discussions within the CCP leadership, have gone further by accusing the White House of double-dealing.

For example, the official Xinhua news agency last week had this to say about the U.S.: "A man can't maintain his reputation if he is found to be untrustworthy, let alone a major power."

The Beijing-based Global Times accused Washington of "frequently changing commitments it has made to other countries."

According to Western diplomats in Beijing and Washington, Chinese officials have been much less forthcoming on the question of exerting pressure on Pyongyang during recent talks with their American counterparts.

For example, Beijing has cast doubt on American claims that Pyongyang has the capacity to build bombs out of highly enriched uranium in addition to just plutonium.

On other occasions, Chinese officials have dropped hints that the six-nation Korean talks might drag on for quite a long while, meaning at least beyond the November U.S. presidential elections.

It is significant that Beijing has been playing down expectations of what can be achieved this week.

During her weekly media briefing last Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhang Qiyue pointed out that parties to the North Korean talks had "a full estimation" of the complications involved.

"The differences and contradictions among relevant parties have become more pronounced," Zhang said. "It is an objective reality that the difficulties have increased."

Diplomatic weapon

South Korean protesters burn a North Korean flag ahead of the start of a third round of six-party talks.

In a commentary on Monday, the People's Daily also noted that the solution to the nuclear crisis could be "a long-term, arduous process involving even the emergence of reversals."

From Pyongyang's point of view, however, the situation has improved markedly since the last six-party talks in late February.

China and South Korea, and to a certain extent Japan, have been admonishing Washington to display more flexibility on its demands that the Kim regime effectuate the "complete, verifiable, and irreversible" dismantling of all WMD installations before economic aid or safety guarantees can be discussed.

Diplomatic analysts said Beijing's position on North Korea had softened since the high-profile visit that Kim paid to China in mid-April.

On that occasion, the CCP leadership highlighted its special, comradely relationship with Pyongyang by having all nine members of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee greet Kim during a welcome function.

The analysts said while the Chinese leadership had yet to be convinced of Kim's zeal for economic and other reforms, Beijing realized very well that the North Korean card was a potent diplomatic weapon it could wield even as more signs had emerged that Washington was again throwing its weight behind the time-honored "anti-China containment policy."

And while Beijing would be happy to continue hosting the six-nation talks, it would only agree to twist the arms of its client state, North Korea, upon securing American inducements on the Taiwan and other fronts.

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