BEIJING – Vice President Dick Cheney (search) sought Wednesday to prod China to apply more pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, citing new evidence that it has atomic weapons.
In a series of meetings with Chinese leaders, he also told China he understands their opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, but that they are directly related to China's own buildup, said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Cheney's talks.
Cheney also expressed U.S. concern about China's recent steps to restrict self-government in Hong Kong, suggesting it might also have a bearing on the Taiwan issue, the official said.
China's treatment of the people of Hong Kong might serve as a bellwether for the people of Taiwan as they consider the "one state, two systems" policy that China applies to Hong Kong.
Cheney met separately Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao (search), his predecessor Jiang Zemin (search), and Premier Wen Jiabao (search). The vice president later flew to Shanghai, the latest stop on a weeklong Asia trip that will also take him to South Korea.
"I didn't come to alter Chinese policy. I did come with the mission of making clear what are views were. I think we achieved that," Cheney told reporters after the meetings.
The status of Taiwan has been an issue between the United States and China for 50 years, Cheney said. "And it's important that there be a very clear open channel of communications between our two nations on that issue."
The senior administration official said Cheney passed on to Chinese leaders new information obtained from a top Pakistani nuclear scientist suggesting that North Korea had at least three nuclear devices, and was capable of making them from both plutonium and enriched uranium.
"Time is not on our side," the official quoted Cheney as telling Chinese leaders.
Cheney favors resuming stalled six-nation talks, but results are what ultimately counts, the U.S. official said. There should be a more aggressive effort to either get those talks back on track or to find other ways of applying pressure on North Korea, the official said.
Although Cheney restated basic U.S. policy on Taiwan — including U.S. opposition to moves toward independence by the self-governing island — China used the occasion of Cheney's visit to step up criticism of U.S. support for what Beijing regards as a renegade province.
China's vice president, Zeng Qinghong, asked Cheney during a one-on-one meeting on Tuesday for Washington to stop selling defensive weapons to Taiwan, Chinese state media reported.
"There is only one China and Taiwan is part of China," an announcer, citing Zeng, said on the state television news. "We hope the United States can carry out its commitment and not sell weapons to Taiwan and not send wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces."
It is almost unheard of for a senior Chinese leader to deliver such a direct, potentially confrontational message to a visiting foreign leader.
The fact that Zeng, a member of the Communist Party's nine member Standing Committee — the center of Chinese power — did so in Cheney's first meeting in Beijing showed China's emphasis on the issue.
Cheney also raised anew U.S. problems with China's practice of pegging its currency, the yuan, to the dollar instead of allowing it to rise and fall with market pressures.
Chinese leaders told Cheney that Chinese Vice Premier Huang Ju would travel to the United States later this year to meet with Treasury Secretary John Snow to discuss American concerns.
U.S. manufacturers claim China's rigid currency policy gives China a competitive advantage and helps drive U.S. jobs overseas. China claims it agrees in principle with allowing market forces to set currency rates, but that it must be achieved slowly to avoid damage to its banking system.
Cheney also delivered to Chinese leaders a request from the Vatican that it be allowed to send an ambassador to Beijing, the official said.
Despite the recent increase of violence in Iraq, and the taking of foreign hostages by Iraqi militants — including seven Chinese who were seized but later released — the subject of Iraq did not come up except in general discussions about the Middle East, the U.S. official said.
Despite tensions, Cheney and his Chinese hosts engaged in lighthearted banter at a series of picture-taking sessions.
Cheney told Wen that the first time he had been to Shanghai was in 1975, when he worked for President Ford. "Things were very different in those days," he said.
Wen agreed. "You will see the great changes taking place in the past few years."