- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

President Bush said yesterday he opposes any efforts by Taiwan to separate itself from communist mainland China, a statement that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said “we very much appreciate.”

“We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo,” Mr. Bush said after a private meeting with Mr. Wen during his official state visit to the White House. “The comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.”

Chen Shui-bian, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), heightened tensions last week by announcing a ballot referendum on March 20 asking voters whether they want to demand that China withdraw hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed across the Taiwan Strait.

The Bush administration considers the referendum provocative and a first step toward a full-fledged independence movement for Taiwan, which has had free elections since 1991.

The “status quo” is a complicated “one-China policy,” in which the United States is pledged to defend the quasi-sovereign Taiwan if attacked by the mainland, but recognizes the view of the People’s Republic of China that the island is a “renegade province.”

The White House earlier this month dispatched a National Security Council aide to Taipei in an effort to warn Mr. Chen against the referendum idea, to little apparent effect.

A senior White House official stressed yesterday that the strong rebuke of Mr. Chen does not change the U.S. commitment to come to Taiwan’s aid if needed.

“We told the People’s Republic of China that if you try to use force or coercion against Taiwan, we will be there,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Wen expressed his gratitude yesterday for Mr. Bush’s strong stance against the referendum, which the Chinese leader — along with senior members of the Bush administration — dismiss as a ploy to help Mr. Chen win a tough re-election battle next year.

“In particular, we very much appreciate the position adopted by President Bush toward the latest moves and developments in Taiwan — that is, the attempt to resort to referendum of various kinds as [an] excuse to pursue Taiwan independence,” Mr. Wen told reporters in the Oval Office.

Mr. Wen said China would seek to settle its differences with Taipei peacefully, “so long as there is a glimmer of hope” for doing so.

At a dinner meeting last night, Mr. Wen repeated his pledge to seek peaceful unification.

“However,” he said, China’s quest for a peaceful solution “time and again has been challenged by Taiwan separatists.”

He called the defense of sovereignty and territorial integrity a fundamental issue and referred to the American Civil War as an example of a nation paying a high price to stay united.

Privately, Bush administration officials say they have been trying to preserve the balancing act on Taiwan, opposing unilateral moves by the island toward independence as well as any military attempt by Beijing to reclaim Taiwan.

But the United States has felt compelled in recent days to offer a more explicit warning against action by Taiwan, said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“We’ve been forced to react to steps taken by President Chen that seem to be pointing toward independence,” the official said.

Asked how Mr. Bush’s opposition to an independent and democratic Taiwan squares with his doctrine of spreading freedom around the world, a senior White House official said the president hopes China’s economic freedom eventually will lead to political and religious freedom.

“We are in no way abandoning the drive toward democracy,” the senior administration official said. “Democracy is alive and well in Taiwan, and the United States is in full support of it, and the president supports freedom throughout the world.”

James Lilley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former ambassador to China, said the president’s comments against the Taiwan referendum “maybe sounds pretty stark” but “we didn’t overwhelm them with our statement.”

David M. Lampton, director of Chinese Studies at the Nixon Center and a professor of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said, “Americans have to be a bit modest” when it comes to advancing liberty in China.

Members and supporters of the Falun Gong, a religious group that has been brutally oppressed in China, demonstrated across the street from the White House yesterday as Mr. Bush was meeting with Mr. Wen.

In his address during the official welcoming ceremony, Mr. Bush applauded Beijing for a “growth of economic freedom in China” and said he hoped “that social, political and religious freedoms will grow there as well.”

David Sands contributed to this report.

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