Powell Sees Positive Trend in Ties with China

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Playing a delicate balancing act, Secretary of State Colin Powell has assured China that the U.S. government does not support independence for Taiwan, while at the same time urging Beijing to accept a recent offer by Taipei to open political discussions across the Taiwan Strait.

Powell is on a whirlwind tour of East Asia, where China-Taiwan tensions and the North Korean nuclear crisis are the major threats to regional stability.

The top U.S. diplomat, who has been upbeat about the state of U.S.-China relations, announced Monday that the two governments had agreed to resume talks on human rights issues. Beijing withdrew from the dialogue last spring to protest Washington's introduction of a resolution at the U.N. human rights commission that was critical of China's record.

Powell urged China to respond positively to an offer by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to open cross-Strait talks, although China has so far rejected the invitation from a leader it suspects of promoting formal independence for the island.

He also discussed with his hosts the question of arms sales to Taiwan. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is obliged to help Taiwan to defend itself.

China is firmly opposed to the sales, but Powell said all weapons transfers to the island were for defensive purposes only. He also tied the transactions directly to China's build-up of missiles targeting the island.

In an interview Monday with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, Powell said the U.S. pointed out to the Chinese "that their deployments and military steps they might be taking on the mainland that are causing an imbalance requires that the imbalance be adjusted in some way, and that leads then to additional arms sales [to Taiwan]."

The Xinhua news agency said after Powell's talks with President Hu Jintao that the Chinese leader appreciated the statement on Taiwanese independence.

China and Taiwan split when the Nationalist government fled to the island after losing a civil war to communists in 1949. Thirty years later the U.S. and most of the world community recognized Beijing as China's legitimate government.

China has threatened to invade Taiwan if it formally declares independence, and has won support from most governments for its "one-China" policy.

In reality, Washington and Beijing have differing interpretations of the one-China policy.

According to China's interpretation, Taiwan is a renegade province that must be incorporated, by force if necessary, into the communist-ruled mainland.

The U.S. interpretation is purposefully ambiguous. Asked to define the administration's one-China policy, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly told the House International Relations Committee last April that he was not sure he could do so easily.

"I can tell you what it is not - it is not the one-China policy or the one-China principle that Beijing suggests, and it may not be the definition that some would have in Taiwan," he added.

Before embarking on his current trip, Powell said in a magazine interview that there was "very useful ambiguity" built into Washington's one China policy.

"Our one-China policy has served all of our interests very, very well for a very, very long period of time," he said, according to a transcript provided by the State Department.

"Our one-China policy has allowed us to build a good relationship with China. It has also allowed us to have a good relationship with Taiwan. It has provided stability in that part of the world because everybody understood what this meant."

'From confrontation to cooperation'

Powell has been positive about the state of relations between Washington and Beijing, saying in various recent interviews that ties have improved significantly over the three-and-a-half years since a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter.

That April 2001 incident took relations to a low point. The damaged U.S. Navy EP-3 landed at a Chinese airstrip after the mid-air collision and Beijing held the 24-person American crew for 11 days before allowing them to leave.

"I think we have seen such an improvement in the relationship over the last four years," Powell told Phoenix TV, citing joint work on the North Korean nuclear issue, frequent meetings between top officials, and the "very close relationship" between President Bush and Hu.

"We have gone from a confrontation in the early April 2001 when our planes collided, to the point now where we are cooperating in so many areas."

Powell acknowledged that disagreements remains, citing human rights in particular.

"But what we decided to do today, for example, is not to ignore that disagreement, but to once again begin the process of resuming a dialogue so we can understand each other's positions better," he said.

Writing before Powell began his four-day visit, Balbina Hwang and John Tkacik of the conservative Heritage Foundation said the Secretary of State needed "to speak plainly" to his Chinese hosts.

They said Powell should make it clear that Washington's one-China policy differed from China's, "and must not be misinterpreted as an acknowledgement that Beijing has any right in international law or otherwise to use force against Taiwan."

He should also call on China to renounce the use of force regarding Taiwan and urge dialogue, without preconditions and on an equal basis.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow