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US works to boost cooperation in Asia

Spat between Korea, Japan over disputed isles comes as US hopes for progress on N. Korea nukes.

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President Bush could hardly have picked a more critical time to host China's President Hu Jintao at the White House.

A flare-up in troubled waters between South Korea and Japan, faltering trilateral cooperation among the US, Japan, and South Korea, and the failure to persuade North Korea to come close to terms on its nuclear-weapons program all make China a pivotal player - while raising questions about US strength and influence in the region.

"The United States can play a more profound role in stabilizing the region," says Moon Jung In, international relations professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "China may be happy to see what's happening."

While the United States tries to persuade China both to reduce its yawning trade surplus with the US and get North Korea to return to six-party talks, a potentially explosive quarrel between South Korea and Japan is frustrating Washington's efforts to join its two northeast Asian allies in common cause on the nuclear issue.

"High-ranking officials of the South Korean government have been talking about Korean-US cooperation rather than trilateral cooperation," says Kim Sung Han, director of North American studies at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, affiliated with South Korea's Foreign Ministry.

"Trilateral cooperation is vital to resolving the North Korean problem," he says.

The tendency in Korea is to blame Japan for somehow wishing to assert its own role in the region, reminding both Koreans and Chinese of the history of Japanese imperialism in Asia, culminating in the conquest of much of the Chinese mainland and 35 years of colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.

Who lays claim to islands?

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