Over the next seven-plus months, the foreign policy debate between presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry will focus on such problem nations as Iraq, Iran and North Korea. They are important; Iraq because it is the key to democratic reform in the Arab world; Iran and North Korea because of their unclear nuclear pretensions.

But events of recent days, namely the election results in Russia and Taiwan, suggest that once the next president assumes office, Russia and China will loom large among his foreign policy challenges. Together with Japan, these are the most significant countries with which an American president must deal. But while Japan is a strong democracy with a stable economy, Russia and China have booming economies (Russia's advanced 6.8 percent and China's was up 9.1 percent in 2003) but troubling alliances with autocracy.

Let's take Russia first. On March 14, President Vladimir Putin won a predictable landslide re-election with 71 percent of the vote. The tally underscored his popularity as a firm leader, but it was essentially a one-horse race. That's because Putin, a former KGB officer, hobbled the other horses by monopolizing the media and government resources for his own ends. His victory effectively centralized his control of power.

Despite protocol-mandatory congratulations by President Bush, both Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice criticized nondemocratic aspects of the election campaign. International election observers echoed these concerns, declaring that biased news coverage and favoritism from election officials "reflected a lack of a democratic culture, accountability and responsibility."

Last month, the European Union issued a policy paper citing Russian practices "that run counter to universal and European values."

The question now is whether the pendulum has swung as far as it will toward autocratic rule under Putin, or whether, with his political strength reinforced, he will seek to make some of the reforms his international critics would like to see.

That poses problems for whoever is elected president in November. Putin has been helpful to Bush in supporting bases in Central Asia to combat terrorism, and with intelligence-sharing. The Russians have been similarly cooperative in rescheduling Iraqi debt.

Perhaps as a quid pro quo, Bush has been muted in his comments about Chechnya, where the Russians are accused of brutality. But tensions are likely to mount as former satellites of the old Soviet Union move closer to the West, and as the United States and its NATO allies relocate military forces closer to Russia.

Given this evolving situation, the incoming U.S. president must delicately balance accommodation with an ally whose support he needs in a number of international situations against pressures to condemn actions and human-rights offenses that run counter to American principles.

Now for China. Last weekend's election in Taiwan has done little to relieve tensions between China and Taiwan, tensions with major implications for the United States.

President Chen Shui-bian won a narrow re-election victory, but the outcome is in dispute. Chen did not achieve success with a referendum on strengthening Taiwan's military, which failed to get the necessary 50 percent voter participation.

The referendum was seen by Beijing as a ploy to further the movement for a Taiwanese declaration of independence. But Beijing, which argues that Taiwan is part of China, clearly disapproves of Chen as a perceived proponent of independence.

This puts the United States on the spot. As is the case with Russia, China has been helpful to the Bush administration, taking the lead in delicate six-party talks with North Korea designed to neutralize Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. This is a key U.S. objective.

Perhaps as a quid pro quo, the Chinese have sought U.S. influence in quelling pro-independence talk in Taiwan and Bush has indeed sought to dispel Chen's ardor in this regard.

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But while he may seek accommodation with China, the incoming U.S. president would be obliged to stand firm in defense of Taiwan should China initiate punitive military action against that island refuge of Chinese who fled communism. That presents the next president with as delicate a juggling act as his relationship with Russia.

The United States should welcome the strengthening economies of Russia and China. The more stable they are, the more consumer-conscious their new generations become, and the less likely they are to be loose-cannon initiators of war.

But economic development fares best under democratic governments. The incoming U.S. president would be more comfortable if both were showing greater movement in this direction.

John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column. E-mail: hughes@desnews.com

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