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Mutual suspicion ahead of Rice's China visit

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to land in Beijing on Sunday for talks on North Korea's nuclear program, but rising concerns over Chinese statements regarding Taiwan are expected to take center stage.  NBC News' Brian Newbury reports from Beijing.
Chinese military honour guards stand in a formation during a ceremony in Beijing
A column of Chinese military honor guards stand in formation during a ceremony in Beijing on Thursday.Claro Cortes IV / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to land in Beijing on Sunday for talks on North Korea's nuclear program and stalled six-party negotiations, but rising concerns over Chinese statements regarding Taiwan are expected to take center stage.

Last Sunday, the Chinese National Peoples Congress unanimously passed the Anti-Secession law, which authorizes the use of force if Taiwan claims independence from China.

The move is seen as a further attempt by China to buttress the legality of any future military action, although Chinese officials stress that the law would in fact increase the chances of “peaceful reunification.”

China’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric is believed to have stemmed in part from a U.S.-Japanese announcement in February, which stated that preventing a crisis in the Taiwan Strait was a “common strategic objective” for both countries. Chinese leaders immediately voiced outrage at the statement.

Either way, the Taiwan issue is expected to dominate the last leg of Rice’s weeklong Asia trip and the first Cabinet-level visit to China since President Bush was re-elected.

China says Taiwan is none of your business
As far as Beijing is concerned, Taiwan is chiefly a domestic issue that does not need to be discussed on the world stage.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing warned Japan and the United States that “any practice of putting Taiwan directly or indirectly into the scope of U.S.-Japanese security cooperation constitutes an encroachment on China’s sovereignty and interference into China’s internal affairs.”

Li reiterated the warning last week. "Foreign forces have no right to intervene. The Chinese people have the determination, the capability and confidence to safeguard our country’s sovereignty," he said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao stepped the rhetoric up further last Sunday when he publicly told the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to prepare for war and "win the wars if any," unmistakably alluding to a potential conflict across the Taiwan Strait, which could involve a clash with the United States.

Move ‘raises tensions’
In response, the White House remarked that China’s actions were “unfortunate” and “raises tensions” across the Taiwan Strait.

“Clearly it raises tensions,” Rice said. She also remarked that China is a “rising force in international politics, and there are both healthy aspects and troubling aspects to that.”

The Taiwanese government also denounced the law, suspended talks to allow additional charter flights between Taiwan and the mainland, and called for a million-strong rally to protest Beijing’s move, with some pro-independence forces calling for an Anti-Annexation Law.  

The situation has been difficult for Australia as well. The country, which counts both the United States and China as major trading partners, supports the "One China" policy but might be obligated under the ANZUS treaty to support the United States in the event of a war with China. 

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has also dismissed hypothetical questions by stating that Australia’s actions will depend on whatever circumstances arise.

Balancing act
For now, Rice has made it clear that the United States would respond to China’s growing military power by reinforcing its own military strength and strengthening regional alliances.

But, displaying the art of diplomatic balance that will surely be key during her 24-hour visit, Rice was also quick to sound a positive note. “China can emerge as a constructive force in Asia," she said.

According to professor Shi Yinhong, a leading authority on U.S.-China relations at Renmin University, the recent controversies over Taiwan and China’s military buildup show a growing “mutual strategic suspicion” between a “rising power” like China, and the “dominant power” like the United States.

“For the long-term, the rise of China will continue, and in response, the U.S. will continue to push Japan to play a bigger military role and will also reinforce its own military strength,” Shi told NBC News.

“The visit of Secretary Rice will be beneficial as it will help in trying to prevent the mutual suspicion from getting too far or too bad,” he added.

No significant shift in policy
Despite all the rhetoric by world leaders, there has been no substantial policy shift by either the United States or China.

The White House has said it stands by its commitment to the “One China” policy, and that China’s anti-secession law is nothing new anyway. Rather, China’s leaders have been declaring for years that a Taiwanese declaration of independence would be unacceptable, and have steadfastly refused to rule out war to prevent Taiwan’s permanent separation.

Oddly enough, Taiwan has not been radical in its policy responses either. After his party suffered a setback in recent elections, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian reaffirmed his earlier pledge to neither declare independence, nor promote a referendum on independence.

The lack of any aggressive moves or statements by the United States and Taiwan has led some to wonder if China’s current actions have more to do with domestic politics and national pride than any real fear of an imminent Taiwanese thrust for independence.