China Suspicious of US Intentions Regarding Taiwan

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - China is expressing growing frustration over what it sees as moves by the Bush administration to legitimize Taiwan's pro-independence forces ahead of elections next March.

Recent days have seen an escalation of rhetoric across the Taiwan Strait, with a senior Chinese official warning that "the use of force may become unavoidable" if Taiwan's leaders engage in pro-independence activities.

In Taiwan, opposition lawmakers reacted by urging the government to stop escalating cross-Strait tensions by promoting a law that would enable Taiwanese people to have the final say in major policy issues through a referendum.

The law, which could be passed next week, has angered the communist authorities on the mainland, who suspect it will be eventually be used to call a vote on formal independence.

Taiwan is a de facto independent country, with its own government, constitution and armed forces. But because of its unique history, China regards it as a renegade province that one day will return to the motherland under its "one China" policy.

Any measures by Taiwan viewed as furthering formal independence - such as a campaign to change its official name from the "Republic of China" to "Taiwan" - draw a hostile response from Beijing.

President Chen Shui-bian, regarded as the most pro-independence leader in Taiwan's half-century history, is facing a re-election campaign, running against opponents who are against independence.

He has made the referendum issue, and calls for a new constitution, key platforms in his campaign.

Chen, who is frequently vilified by China, had a recent stopover in New York en route to Panama, where he attended a centennial celebration.

Beijing's official China Daily accused the U.S. government of "breaking its decades-old practice of limiting a Taiwan leader's activities in the United States to an unofficial level," by allowing him unhindered access to the media and freedom to travel while in New York.

It also noted that, in Panama, Chen and Secretary of State Colin Powell had "exchanged pleasantries."

"It was the highest-level contact between the United States and Taiwan since Washington cut diplomatic ties with the island in 1979 and recognized Beijing," the report said, adding that such moves were seen in Taiwan as U.S. support for "separatist" activities.

'Opposes' vs. 'does not support'

Another recent incident that upset China occurred during Chen's New York transit, when the chairwoman of the American Institute in Taiwan, Therese Shaheen, was quoted as drawing a distinction between the U.S. saying it "does not support" Taiwan's independence, and saying it "opposes" Taiwan's independence.

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) is a State Department-funded body established after the U.S. ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan, to deal with exchanges between Washington and Taipei.

Shaheen's reported comments drew a rebuke early this week from Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, who said it contradicted oft-repeated assertions by U.S. leaders that the U.S. stands by the "one China" policy.

Lui asked what Shaheen intended by making the remarks at a time when "the Taiwan separatist forces are playing up their tricks."

The AIT Wednesday referred queries to the State Department.

Asked about the comments attributed to Shaheen, a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "the U.S. has repeatedly stated over a fairly long period of time, in more than one administration, that the U.S. does not support Taiwan independence."

Asked whether that meant there was no distinction between the U.S. "not supporting" and "opposing" Taiwanese independence, the official said: "I didn't say what you said, I said what I said, and what I said was that ... we don't support Taiwan independence."

In comments published in China Daily Wednesday, Wang Zaixi, the vice minister of the Chinese Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office, said pro-independence forces on Taiwan would "pay a high cost if they think we will not use force."

"If the Taiwan authorities collude with all splittist forces to openly engage in pro-independence activities and challenge the mainland and the one-China principle, the use of force may become unavoidable," he said.

Asked about the warnings, the State Department official said the U.S. believed the use of force to resolve cross-Strait differences was unacceptable, and it also opposed any attempt by unilaterally change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. held that dialogue was essential for peace and stability.

"We have conveyed to both sides that we would like to see them refrain from statements or actions that can increase tension - that includes threats of the use of force."

The official said the U.S. did not take a position with regard to Taiwan's election. "It's a matter for the people of Taiwan to decide. We don't endorse any particular candidate, or their statements or their platforms."

Asked about the encounter in Panama involving Powell and Chen, the State Department official stressed it was not a meeting in the usual sense of the word.

"They were physically present at the same place. They did see each other. They exchanged some conversation and shook hands. 'Meeting' implies it was a planned event."

He said the U.S. only has unofficial dealings with Taiwan.

'Mixed messages' from U.S.

Meanwhile, official mainland media quoted Chinese scholars on Taiwanese affairs as warning that the U.S. was sending mixed and ambiguous messages to Chen by not clearly opposing independence.

One of them, National Society of Taiwan Studies vice-chairman Xu Shiquan, said Chen's recent push for formal independence could be partially blamed on U.S. encouragement for him.

"Despite its pledge not to be involved in the island's elections, Washington has created a harmful impression that it has thrown weight behind Taiwan independence," China Daily quoted him as saying.

Another of the experts, Institute of Taiwan Studies president Yu Keli, predicted Beijing would be forced to take "decisive measures" if Taiwan passes the referendum law.

Taiwan became home to China's Nationalist government during a civil war against Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.

In 1979, Taiwan lost its U.N. seat to mainland China. Apart from 27 developing countries, governments around the world have official diplomatic relations with China and not Taiwan, at Beijing's existence.

Although it closed its embassy in Taiwan in 1979, the U.S. remains Taiwan's main weapons supplier and is committed under the Taiwan Relations Act to defend the island democracy.

The last time China threatened to use force against Taiwan was on the eve of the last presidential election, in March 2000, when it warned against any move towards independence. Chen won that election.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow