March 17, 2006

US Encourages Improved Ties between China and Japan

By Sue Pleming and Michelle Nichols

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The United States urged Japan and China on Friday to improve strained ties, but insisted that weekend security talks with Australia and Japan will not focus on Washington's wariness of China's rise as an Asia-Pacific power.

Yet the inaugural top-level talks, to be held in Sydney on Saturday, have highlighted a difference of opinion between close allies Canberra and Washington, with Australia seeing China more as an economic opportunity than a potential negative force.

As part of what analysts see as a difficult diplomatic balancing act, Australian Prime Minister John Howard met U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, just weeks ahead of an expected visit to Australia by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

At a news conference with Howard, Rice said China's rise needed to be positive and urged Beijing and Tokyo to work on their ties, strained over a range of disputes mainly stemming from Japan's occupation of much of China from 1931 to 1945.

"There's a lot to work with in the Japan-China relationship and we have encouraged that relationship to get better and better," Rice told reporters.

"We want a region in which China is influential and is going to be more influential over the next several years, is more open in domestic policies and is more open in its face in the world."

Howard made no comment on the emergence of China and, while Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has shown support for the U.S. bid to manage the Asian giant, he has also assured Beijing it should not view this as an attempt at containment.

Rice said the trilateral security talks were also likely to cover Iraq and the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, adding that there was "plenty to talk about."

"It would be wrong to leave the impression (that China) is the only thing on the agenda when Japan, the United States and Australia get together, because we share values, we share responsibilities, not just regionally but globally," she said.


Australia was one of the first countries to commit to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, while Japan sent troops in a non-combat role to help with post-war reconstruction.

Rice traveled to Melbourne later on Friday where she thanked troops at Victoria Barracks, who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said that the situation in Iraq was difficult.

She said the United States, Australia and Japan would also discuss on Saturday trying to ensure the Asia-Pacific region was spared the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

"We need to be able to deal, for instance, with the problems of a state like North Korea, which is clearly outside its obligations in the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty)," she said.

Although not a party to six-way talks aimed at persuading North Korea to scrap its nuclear programs, Australia has used its alliance with the United States and rare diplomatic ties with Pyongyang to encourage negotiations.

The nuclear crisis erupted in late 2002 after Washington said isolated North Korea had admitted to developing highly enriched uranium for weapons. North Korea denies having such a program.

The six-way talks between North Korea, the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia began in 2003 to try to break the nuclear deadlock.

Howard and Rice said they had also discussed a U.S. deal to supply India with nuclear technology in return for separating its military and civil facilities and opening the civilian plants to international inspections.

New Delhi wants to buy uranium from Australia, which has more than 40 percent of the world's known reserves of the mineral, but Canberra maintains it will not sell to countries -- like India -- that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But Howard said he would send a team of officials to India and the United States to get more information on the deal.

"There isn't going to be an immediate change in government policy. Obviously like all policies you never say never," he said.