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A Class Reunion That Might Shake US Ties With China

EVEN as China publicly rages over the unprecedented visit of Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to the United States, Chinese leaders will closely watch the outcome before leveling strong retaliation, Western and Chinese analysts say.

A day after Mr. Lee arrived in the Los Angeles on what Washington considers a "private visit" and Beijing regards as a diplomatic affront, a Chinese diplomat issued new warnings that trade and economic ties with the US could suffer.

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Mr. Lee, the first Taiwanese president allowed to stop in the US since Washington shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, will be attending a class reunion at Cornell University, his alma mater in Ithica, New York.

Although the Taiwanese leader won't travel to Washington, his visit represents a high-profile shift in US policy toward the two Chinas (Taiwan calls itself Republic of China).

Pressured by Republican supporters of Taiwan in Congress, President Clinton changed course last month and announced that Lee would be granted a visa for the Cornell observance. The administration insists the decision represents no change in relations with China.

For the second time this week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang charged that the Lee visa violates US diplomatic agreements with China and warned that the controversy endangers all aspects of Sino-US relations.

"If either side goes about violating the [agreements], there will be trouble caused and even retrogression," he said.

In what Western diplomats here consider relatively mild retaliation, China has postponed talks on missile and nuclear technology control and canceled a planned US visit by its defense minister and other official exchanges.

Beijing regards Taiwan, home of the Chinese Nationalists ousted from the Communist-controlled mainland since 1949, as a province of China. Taipei also considers the island officially part of China, but, under Taiwan's growing democratization in recent years, has pushed for more autonomy and an end to its diplomatic isolation.

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Key to further retaliation by Beijing will be whether Lee maintains a low profile while in the US, Chinese analysts say. Western diplomats say that could prove difficult as the Taiwanese leader is expected to meet some of his congressional supporters and push Taiwan's case to regain a United Nations seat and enter the new World Trade Organization ahead of Beijing.

"Please see how Lee Teng-hui conducts himself under the public eye," the official New China News Agency said this week.

Despite its pique over the visit, China has continued regularly scheduled negotiations between quasi-official organizations from the two rivals. But on Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry official directly criticized Lee for orchestrating the visit.

"Lee Teng-hui's goal is to create two Chinas or one China and one Taiwan," Mr. Shen said. "Such activities by no means serve the interests of all the Chinese people."

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