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Taiwan warned by us not to provoke china { December 9 2003 }

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Taiwan Warned By U.S.
Island Asked Not To Provoke China

By Glenn Kessler and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 9, 2003; Page A01

On the eve of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit, the Bush administration signaled a tougher stance on Taiwan's moves toward independence yesterday, warning the island not to take any unilateral steps that might provoke the government on the Chinese mainland.

A senior administration official, briefing reporters in advance of Wen's meeting with President Bush today, said the administration had decided to drop a policy known as "strategic ambiguity" -- declining to say how it would respond to efforts by either nation to change Taiwan's status. Instead, the official said, actions by both countries had forced the administration to spell out more clearly what it thinks each nation should do to maintain stability in the Taiwan straits.

As part of the new diplomatic code, the official said, "coercion or the use of force" by China is unacceptable. But the bulk of the official's remarks concerned Taiwan, including a sharp rejection of a referendum scheduled this spring that U.S. officials believe is designed to inspire Taiwan's independence movement.

"I will tell you that we are giving the Taiwanese the message very clearly and very authoritatively that we don't want to see steps toward independence and we don't want to see moves taken, proposals made, that a logical outsider would conclude are really geared primarily toward moving the island in that direction," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

White House officials said the administration had not shifted its policy toward Taiwan and that the official's remarks reflect statements that have been issued in recent weeks. But conservatives within the administration and outside experts interpreted the remarks as a significant change, designed to reward China for its assistance in the North Korean nuclear crisis and amounting to a recognition of its growing status on the world political stage. A huge Chinese flag, one story high, adorned the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in anticipation of Wen's visit today.

When Bush took office, he pronounced China to be a strategic competitor and, in a televised interview in April 2001, he caused a diplomatic furor when he said Beijing needs to understand that the United States would "do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. The administration then quickly retreated to the long-standing approach of ambiguity about how it would react to either Taiwanese independence efforts or Chinese military movements. Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province.

Taiwan has freedoms and a thriving democracy of the sort celebrated by the president, while China is ruled by autocrats and allows little political or religious freedom. But now Bush needs Chinese assistance on economic and diplomatic issues, even as it has continued a military buildup opposite Taiwan. Meanwhile, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has alarmed U.S. officials with a series of provocative actions and statements, including scheduling a referendum that would call on China to withdraw ballistic missiles aimed at the island.

With administration officials and the U.S. military preoccupied with the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, the White House is eager to head off a potential crisis in another part of the globe.

James Moriarty, a senior official who oversees Asian affairs for the National Security Council, secretly traveled to Taiwan last week, carrying a letter from Bush to Chen expressing strong opposition to the referendum. The letter urged Chen not to take actions that increase tension across the straits and that would cause instability in the region, said a source who has read the letter.

"We don't want such a referendum," said the official who briefed reporters yesterday. "We're not clear what logical purpose it would serve. I can tell you right now that 99.6 percent of the Taiwan people would love to see the mainland withdraw its missiles. Confirming that fact through a referendum, to an extent sort of confirms the obvious" and seems designed mainly to aid Chen's reelection next year. "If anything, it probably diminishes" Taiwan's security, the official said.

"The salami is being sliced from both ends here. At one end, you have the Chinese continuing to build up their military capabilities," the official added. "On the other hand, you have a Taiwan that seems to be pushing the envelope pretty vigorously on questions that seem to be related to Taiwan's status, and that makes us uncomfortable."

The history of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations often turns on nuances and small phrases, designed to give both sides comfort and obscure deep differences. China frequently seeks to change the formula regarding Taiwan, while Taiwan's government tends to see how far it can stake out a claim of independence, creating diplomatic tension that the United States feels it must carefully manage.

The Bush administration has said it "does not support" Taiwan's independence. But Chinese officials have said that Bush has gone further in two private meetings with Chinese leaders, saying his administration "opposes" independence. White House officials deny that, but the subtle difference in wording is highly significant to China. In recent months, Chinese officials have pressed for sharper language from the Bush administration on Taiwan's independence movement.

"What we're trying to be is very explicit, which is, we don't want to see Taiwan moving towards independence," the official acknowledged yesterday. "We don't want to see any unilateral moves in that direction, whether that amounts to 'oppose' [or] 'do not support.' "

2003 The Washington Post Company

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