Bush clarifies Taiwan policy

U.S. opposes referendum on possible independence

China's premier on state visit

Officials go beyond vague statements of past

December 09, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, seeking to remove an irritant threatening to undermine the president's meeting today with China's premier, strongly criticized yesterday a planned referendum in Taiwan that could be interpreted as a move toward independence.

Senior administration officials told reporters that the United States would oppose "any unilateral steps" to change Taiwan's status, including the use of force by Beijing or "any moves by Taiwan itself, including referenda or constitutional reform that would change the status quo on independence or unification."

The criticism of Taiwan came on the eve of a meeting between President Bush and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that the White House hopes will forge "a personal relationship" and boost cooperation between the two nations on trade and on halting North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

While denying any explicit shift from longstanding policy toward Beijing or Taipei, Bush administration officials indicated that they were unhappy about recent moves by Taiwan to challenge China and felt the need to clarify the U.S. stance.

The officials' remarks were significant in that they went beyond past vague statements to specify political actions that should be avoided by Taiwan - a democracy, but one heavily dependent on American weaponry.

Tensions have mounted between China and Taiwan in recent weeks over plans by the island, which China calls a breakaway province, to hold a referendum in March timed to coincide with its presidential elections, that China sees as an effort to fuel the independence movement.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian declared Sunday that the vote, which he called a "defensive referendum," would demand that China dismantle missiles aimed at Taiwan and renounce the use of force.

China has warned repeatedly that it would use force to prevent Taiwan from becoming independent. After arriving in New York on Sunday, Wen complained to reporters that "separatist forces within the Taiwan authorities attempt to use democracy only as a cover to split Taiwan away from China."

"This is what we will never tolerate," Wen said in remarks carried by the official Xinhua news agency. His visit to Washington began last night with a dinner at which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was the host.

Since the United States opened full diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979, Washington's attitude toward China's relationship with Taiwan has been grounded in ambiguity, frequently requiring tortured language to paper over seemingly contradictory policies.

The United States maintains a "one China" policy, which implies a recognition of Beijing's claim to Taiwan. At the same time, it continues to be a major arms supplier to Taiwan, bolstering its defense against any attempt by China to take the island by force. Successive U.S. administrations have said they are bound by the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the United States to ensure Taiwan's ability to defend itself.

The United States has repeatedly urged Beijing and Taipei to resolve disputes peacefully. During the Clinton administration, the United States dispatched warships toward the Taiwan Straits in a warning to China to cease threats against Taiwan.

Bush administration relations with China got off to a rocky start in April 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet and a Navy spy plane collided while the U.S. aircraft was on a surveillance flight over the South China Sea. The damaged U.S. plane made an emergency landing on Chinese territory, and its crew was held by Chinese authorities. After an 11-day standoff, the crisis ended with a carefully worded American letter and China's release of the U.S. crew.

Later that month, Bush annoyed Beijing anew when he made a more explicit pledge to Taiwan than had his predecessors, telling ABC's Good Morning America that he would order "whatever it took" to help Taiwan defend itself.

However, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Chinese acquiescence in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, relations between Washington and Beijing have steadily improved, to the point where Powell declared two months ago that "U.S. relations with China are the best they have been since President Nixon's first visit," referring to Nixon's breakthrough trip to Beijing in 1972.

Notably, Beijing has assumed a leading role in forging a unified stance among the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea, aimed at pressuring North Korea to abandon its plans to develop nuclear weapons. China has also been less critical publicly than Russia, Germany and France of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

As its economy has grown rapidly over the past decade, China has expanded its diplomatic influence across the Asian region, acting as both a partner and competitor to the United States, which a few years ago wielded almost unchallenged power in the Pacific.

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