- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

China stands ready to discuss a broad range of sensitive military, economic and diplomatic issues with Taiwan if the island’s new government accepts Beijing’s terms on national sovereignty, China’s U.S. Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong said Thursday.

“We have made clear that as long as they agree to the one-China principle, everything can be discussed,” Mr. Zhou said, including such topics as China’s military buildup across the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan’s participation in international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. Zhou said China’s rulers “do not challenge” the U.S. security presence in East Asia, even as China rises to the status of an economic superpower with global security and economic interests of its own.

“We recognize the United States as an Asian-Pacific power,” the veteran diplomat said. “You have major interests in this theater and we respect that. China does not want to challenge your interests, but we need to work together on common interests.”

Taiwan, a key U.S. ally and trading partner that China considers a breakaway part of its territory, has long been a sore spot in U.S.-Chinese relations. But Mr. Zhou acknowledged that relations between Beijing and Taipei have warmed noticeably since the inauguration last month of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

Mr. Ma has taken a far more conciliatory approach to the mainland than did predecessor Chen Shui-bian, who regularly upset both Beijing and Washington with moves asserting Taiwan’s independence.

“The tension is clearly dropping. We are seeing signs of an improvement in cross-strait relations,” Mr. Zhou said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao late last month met with Wu Poh-hsiung, head of Mr. Ma’s Nationalist Party in Beijing. Mr. Hu reportedly told Mr. Wu that Taiwan’s participation in international bodies such as the WHO could be a “priority” in future bilateral talks.

Beijing’s insistent refusal to permit the island to join international organizations and alliances under the “Taiwan” name - even under less formal “observer” status - was a constant source of tension under Mr. Chen. Mr. Zhou said the recent thaw in relations could change that.

“We understand that the people of Taiwan desire to take part in international activities,” he said. “We have always respected their rights to having access to the necessary information.”

Mr. Zhou’s suggestion that China would be willing to discuss its military buildup came as Mr. Ma told the Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, in its edition published Friday, that the withdrawal of China’s missile arsenal opposite the island was a precondition for talks on an ultimate political settlement.

“In order to reconcile with each other, we should hold peace talks on both sides [of the Taiwan Strait],” Mr. Ma said. “In that case, prior to … talks, I would demand the withdrawal of the missiles or some other way to remove the threat.”

China’s expanding defense budgets, its growing economic clout and its role in creating Asian regional groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have led to concerns in Washington that Beijing might in time seek to supplant the United States as the region’s dominant military force.

The SCO, dominated by Russia and China and including all the major Central Asian states, has been deepening security ties in recent years, including staging major joint military exercises from which U.S. observers were excluded.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a speech in Singapore on Saturday that the United States is a “resident power” in Asia. In explaining the term, the Pentagon chief said there is “sovereign American territory in the western Pacific from the Aleutian Islands all the way down to Guam.”

Mr. Zhou repeated China’s standard line that its “peaceful rise” as an economic and political power should not be seen as a threat to any other nation.

He said China’s higher military spending came after years of little or no growth in defense budgets, and that China’s armed forces had to defend several key shipping lanes and borders with more than a dozen countries. China’s military posture was defensive, its nuclear arsenal small and its defense budgets still among the “smallest of all the major countries.”

“Of course, we hope that China can be perceived as a friend and partner, but we also understand that people believe in hedging their bets,” he said. “But it should be clear that China does not want to be in any conflict with the United States.”

Mr. Zhou said he hoped the “six-party talks” China has hosted over the North Korean nuclear crisis could in time evolve into a larger discussion of a regional security arrangement for Northeast Asia.

The envoy also acknowledged that China itself is evolving, as its booming economy and new openness to the world economy have modified the communist system Mao Zedong laid out in creating the People’s Republic of China. He said a decisive shift came with the “socialism with Chinese characteristics” formulated by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s.

“That was very important to understanding the thinking in China today,” Mr. Zhou said. “Deng wrote that poverty is not socialism, egalitarianism is not socialism, centralized planning is not socialism.”

“What is socialism is to our thinking open to discussion,” he added. “We believe we have created the correct road for Chinese socialism.”

He argued that the changing world order also is well-fitted to China’s concept of peaceful development.

“The world has changed. That is why we need a new outlook on security,” he said. “We can only have security today when we resolve problems through consultation and dialogue. Gone are the days when countries tried to protect their own interests through force.”

Asked whether he thinks recent U.S. military operations such as the invasion of Iraq constituted a wise use of force in today’s world, he joked, “Maybe I will answer that question after I retire.”

The Chinese ambassador addressed a broad number of issues in the nearly two-hour interview:

* On Tibet, he defended Beijing’s record in funding economic and social progress in the region and accused the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, and his followers of being behind recent deadly clashes in the province. The Dalai Lama has condemned the violence and his followers accuse Chinese security forces of brutally suppressing demonstrations earlier this year.

“The Dalai Lama and his followers have never given up on their program for independence,” Mr. Zhou contended, charging that violent protests both in Tibet and against Chinese embassies and consulates abroad showed that the protests were coordinated.

* On global warming, Mr. Zhou said China’s leaders have taken steps to cut energy consumption and the emission of major pollutants. But he added that China is a developing economy and despite its booming economy still consumes only 8 percent of the world’s total oil production.

He said China’s leaders did not plan any sudden elimination of domestic fuel subsidies, despite the government’s commitment to address the climate issue.

“You will see that happening only gradually,” he said. “If you liberalize prices too suddenly, you can upset the economy a lot.”

* On U.S. trade relations, he said China’s huge trade surpluses of recent years with the United States were based largely on consumer goods. If U.S. consumers did not buy Chinese goods, they would have to import them from other countries, “probably at higher prices,” he said.

He also expressed some frustration at American barriers to Chinese investment, citing the 2005 political uproar in the United States that forced a leading Chinese oil company to drop its bid for Unocal Oil.

“Sometimes our openness is not reciprocated on this side of the equation,” he said.

* On the 1989 crackdown on unarmed protesters in Beijing´s Tiananmen Square, Mr. Zhou indicated the Chinese government does not intend to re-evaluate whether using troops to clear the square was wrong.

The government’s official “conclusion” for the action is that it was a response to forces inside and outside China who sought to create a disturbance. “That episode in China´s history was unfortunate, of course,” he said, but he defended the use of troops as “a law-and-order issue.”

Showing the lingering sensitivities of the 1989 incident, China’s foreign ministry harshly denounced the United States for calling for the release of political activists who were imprisoned after the crackdown.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Tuesday urged China to improve its global image ahead of the upcoming Olympic Games by accounting for the thousands killed, detained or missing in the “massacre that followed the protests.”

*Mr. Zhou defended China’s policy toward such authoritarian regimes as Burma, Sudan and Iran, where Beijing has major economic interests.

While China and the United States may have “a different point of view” on how to deal with such regimes, “the important thing is that we share the same end goal.” He noted that despite their different takes on Iran, China and the United States have jointly supported three U.N. sanctions to curb Iran’s suspect nuclear programs.

“Sometimes we may disagree, but because we share the same goal, we somehow can reach an agreement to get things done,” he said.

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