Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Chinese President Jiang Zemin has begun an official visit to the U.S., visiting several cities before hunkering down with President Bush at his Crawford ranch for a meeting that may now be overshadowed by the North Korean nuclear weapons issue.
The trip is likely to be one of the last for Jiang in his official capacity. He is expected to relinquish his leadership of China's communist party next month, and the presidency early next year.
As such, the visit has long been seen as a largely ceremonial affair, but the recent disclosure that North Korea has been violating an agreement to stop acquiring nuclear weapons will bring serious issues into play.
Bush said late Monday the nuclear issue would be on the agenda late this week in Texas, where the two men will hold their third meeting in a year.
Speaking to journalists after an Oval Office meeting with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, the president said North Korea's neighbors had "the most at stake" when it came to the nuclear threat.
Bush said he would seek to persuade Jiang - and the leaders of South Korea, Japan and Russia at an Asia-Pacific meeting in Mexico at the weekend - "that we must convince [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il to disarm for the sake of peace."
"I look forward to a good discussion with the president of China about how we can work together to take our relationships to a new level in dealing with the true threats of the 21st century," he said.
Officials in Washington said last week senior North Korean representatives admitted during a meeting early this month that the country has pursued a covert uranium-enriching program to make nuclear weapons.
The move is a clear contravention of a key 1994 agreement with the U.S. to stop its nuclear arms program, in return for help from the U.S. and its allies U.S. in providing fuel and safe light-water reactors for the impoverished Stalinist country.
The State Department has declined since then to comment on claims that countries like China - North Korea's closest ally - as well as Pakistan and Russia, may have had a hand in Pyongyang's efforts.
According to an unclassified CIA report to Congress last January, Chinese firms during 2001 provided "dual-use missile-related items, raw materials, and/or assistance" to North Korea and other countries of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation concern.
The portion of the report dealing with nuclear weapons said North Korea had continued to acquire technology "worldwide" that could be used in its nuclear program. It did not specify where these attempts had been carried out.
On Monday, Beijing's foreign ministry rejected as "totally groundless" claims that China may have provided the materials needed by the North Korean uranium-enrichment program.
China was "opposed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and pursued a policy not to support, to encourage or help in developing such weapons," said spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.
Beijing last week issued new regulations aimed at strengthening export controls over dual use biological and chemical agents, less than two months after promulgating similar rules governing missile technology.
The moves have been widely seen as part of a plan to smooth the way ahead of the Crawford talks.
Other issues on the agenda for the Bush-Jiang talks include the Taiwan issue, the war on terrorism, and the possibility of a military strike against Iraq.
China - a veto-wielding Security Council member - has up to now called for a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi weapons inspection crisis, within the framework of the U.N.
Reports in the region suggest that Jiang may offer some sort of quid pro quo - an undertaking that China won't oppose U.S. policy on Iraq in the Security Council in return for a U.S. pledge not to support Taiwanese independence.
Official Chinese media this week have also stressed the Taiwan issue.
China's ambassador to the U.S., Yang Jiechi, was quoted by the Xinhua news agency as saying Taiwan remained "the core and sensitive issue" in Sino-U.S. relations.
He expressed the hope Washington would stop sending "any more wrong signals" to what he said were pro-independence forces in Taiwan, Xinhua said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell was quoted as telling a Hong Kong television station that Bush would during his meeting with Jiang affirm his support for the "one China" principle.
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