Cheney arrives for weeklong Asia visit

Recent events in Iraq, Taiwan, South Korea color diplomatic mission

April 11, 2004|By Doyle McManus | Doyle McManus,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO - Vice President Dick Cheney arrived here yesterday to begin a weeklong visit to Japan and South Korea, two key allies, and China, a growing power that has become an unexpectedly close U.S. diplomatic partner.

U.S. officials said Cheney's trip, his first to East Asia in more than three years as vice president, was aimed at shoring up relationships in the area. The vice president's agenda includes issues including North Korea and Iraq, where Japan and South Korea have sent troops.

"We'll try to move everything forward," said a senior official involved in the trip. He added that Cheney isn't aiming at any breakthroughs on individual issues. "That's not the purpose of the trip. It's ongoing management of all these relationships."

But if Cheney hoped for calm conversation about long-range issues, he is likely to find recent events intruding.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is facing a potential political crisis over Iraqi militants' seizure of three Japanese hostages. China is preoccupied with Taiwan, where President Chen Shui-bian just won a hotly disputed election on a platform that calls for moving toward formal independence from the mainland. And Cheney will land in Seoul on South Korea's parliamentary election day - to meet with an "acting president" because President Roh Moo Hyun has been impeached.

Cheney wasn't scheduled to meet with Koizumi until tomorrow morning, but an aide said he might talk with the prime minister before then to express support for Japan's refusal to negotiate over the hostages.

The hostage seizure is "a classic case ... [of] trying to change the behavior of governments through terror," said the senior official, who briefed reporters on Cheney's plans on condition he not be identified. "It's important that those of us who are working on this overall effort not allow that to happen."

Risky move

Even before the hostage seizure, Iraq was an issue for Koizumi, who decided last year to send about 550 Japanese noncombat troops to assist the U.S.-led occupation force there - the first overseas deployment of Japanese troops since World War II.

"That was a huge step ... and it wasn't very popular," said Joseph A. Massey, a Japan expert at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. "How is the public going to react when the first Japanese gets killed?"

Cheney will thank Japan and South Korea for sending troops, in hopes that the public praise will help both governments' standing, an aide said.

In all three countries, the vice president will discuss the problem of communist-ruled North Korea, which has said it is resuming production of the plutonium used in nuclear weapons.

The United States has joined with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia in six-nation negotiations to urge North Korea to halt its nuclear program and dismantle any weapons it has built. But the most recent round of talks deadlocked in February.

Cheney's aim essentially is to keep China, Japan and South Korea in line with the U.S. policy of rejecting any pre-emptive concessions to the North.

Change on China

The centerpiece of Cheney's journey, however, will be his 48-hour visit to China in the middle of the week.

Cheney and President Bush came into office in 2001 contending that former President Bill Clinton had been too easy on China, and declared Beijing a "strategic competitor" to the United States, not (as Clinton had put it) a "strategic partner."

Now, three years later, U.S.-China relations have turned unusually cordial. China has supported Bush's "war on terrorism" and did not actively oppose the invasion of Iraq. Beijing has become an important partner in the North Korea talks. And even on the perennially touchy issue of Taiwan, China and the United States have found grounds for agreement: They both want to dissuade Taiwan's president from any sudden moves toward independence.

On Taiwan, Cheney will seek to walk a fine line. China wants Washington to say clearly that it opposes any move toward independence by Taiwan. Recent administrations, including Bush's, have stopped short of that, saying merely that they oppose any change in the status quo. Some U.S. conservatives want the administration to be more vocal in its support for Taiwan.

Cheney is likely to leave both sides disappointed - and U.S. policy about where it was: "We are opposed to unilateral efforts to change the circumstances in the Taiwan Strait, on either side," the senior official said.

China also will pressure the United States to end weapons sales to Taiwan, including missile systems, scholars said. Cheney will make no such pledge, officials said, though experts note that Taiwan's arms-buying has slowed for economic reasons.

Other issues likely to arise include human rights, China's attempts to control the pace of reform in Hong Kong, economics and trade issues, and terrorism.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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