Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Senior White House Asia adviser Jeffrey Bader returned from their Beijing visit empty-handed. Notwithstanding the checklist of issues they hoped would be examined - in particular the new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Tehran and the sale of US treasury bonds - their Chinese counterparts imposed a precondition that stymied all discussions and - in an unorthodox move - made public the breakdown of negotiations.

Much to the astonishment of the U.S. envoys, before embarking on any other matter their Chinese hosts demanded that the U.S. cancel its arms sale to Taiwan.

This sensitive issue is not new. In the past, Beijing never missed an opportunity to voice its disapproval whenever Washington made a gesture towards the separatists, be it Taiwan, Tibet or , more recently, Xinkiang. After the formal protests, discussions on the other subjects could normally proceed.

According to Washington, the current stiffening on the part of Beijing is attributable to a shift at the helm of the Communist Party, which has allegedly swung into the hands of the hard-line nationalists.

Beijing considers instead that what has changed is not the Party but the correlation of power, asserting that the United States must first stop its practice of interfering if it expects China to cooperate.