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Chinese VP Agrees to Military Exchanges, Trade Cooperation; Warns on Taiwan

The man likely to be China's next leader and top U.S. officials agreed to resume military exchanges and increase cooperation after first-ever meetings that both sides called a success.

But Vice President Hu Jintao, giving Americans an initial glimpse into his thinking, warned Wednesday that "any trouble" on Taiwan could hurt the two countries' improving relations. He also strongly defended his country's human rights record, saying Chinese law already guarantees freedom of religious belief and "normal" religious activities.

President Bush told Hu he expected the two countries can resolve their differences on a wide range of issues, including Taiwan and human rights, and said he was pleased with the overall state of U.S-China relations, Bush's spokesman said following their 30-minute meeting at the White House.

Hu is little known in the United States, but is widely expected to become China's president next year. He reached only one substantive agreement during his first visit here: He and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld agreed that military exchanges between the two countries should be restored, Hu's spokeswoman, Zhang Qiyue, said.

For more than a year there has been little contact between the U.S. military and China's People's Liberation Army. Last spring, the collision of a U.S. spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet and Bush's later approval of a substantial arms package for Taiwan caused some tensions.

Hu, in a speech Wednesday night to a pro-business group — his only public appearance in Washington — called Taiwan "the most important and sensitive issue at the heart of U.S.-Chinese relations," and said "properly handling" it was the key to good relations.

"If any trouble occurs on the Taiwan question, it would be difficult for China-U.S. relations to move forward, and a retrogression may even occur," he said.

He warned that "selling sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan or upgrading U.S.-Taiwan relations" would be inconsistent with U.S. commitments and serve "neither peace and stability for the Taiwan Strait, nor China-U.S. relationship and the common interests of the two countries."

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, and Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, has threatened military action if the island declares independence.

The Bush administration, viewed as more pro-Taiwan than the previous administration, seeks "a peaceful resolution of any differences between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "We do not wish to see provocation on either side of the Taiwan Strait."

Hu said he believed an overwhelming majority of the Taiwanese people would eventually support the idea of peaceful reunification. There was no immediate response from government officials in Taiwan, where media extensively covered Hu's meetings in Washington.

At the White House meeting, Bush and Hu discussed Taiwan, human rights, trade, the war on terrorism, agricultural issues and missile proliferation, Fleischer said. Hu's spokeswoman said that after the talks Hu was more confident about the future relationship.

Bush and Hu previously had met briefly in Beijing in February. But Hu was largely unknown to U.S. leaders before this trip, and many of his meetings were private get-acquainted sessions.

During his public speech and during a brief question-and-answer period, Hu adhered closely to the phrases in his prepared text. But many in the audience of pro-business people said his answers showed a good grasp of details.

On human rights, Hu said it had been no easy task "for a big developing country like China with a population of nearly 1.3 billion to have so considerably improved its human rights situation in such a short period of time."

But outside the hotel where Hu spoke, Cathy Jin, a practitioner of the Falun Gong spiritual group banned in China, called Hu's claim of religious freedom inside China false. "Really, all we hope is that people can have the freedom of their beliefs," she said as she handed out pamphlets.

Before the vice president spoke, about 100 protesters shouted, "Hu Jintao is a killer, Hu Jintao is a butcher" across the street from the hotel, protesting his previous role as China's top official in Tibet, which seeks autonomy from China.