China Warns U.S. On Issue of Taiwan

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

BEIJING, March 7 -- China warned the United States on Tuesday against sending "false signals" to Taiwan by playing down a recent decision by the island to do away with the National Unification Council.

Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said Taiwan's decision constituted an "open provocation" that required a tough response not only from China but also from other governments. In its announcement Feb. 27, Taiwan said that the council had "ceased to function" and that its set of guidelines for the eventual unification of Taiwan and China had "ceased to apply."

"This is a dangerous step toward independence," Li said at a news conference held as part of the annual meeting of the Chinese legislature, the National People's Congress.

He expressed hope that the United States would have a "correct understanding" of the gravity of Taiwan's move.

Li's comments suggested China had been disappointed by the Bush administration's reaction to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's decision to do away with the council. In the increasingly close cooperation between Washington and Beijing, China has come to rely on the United States to rein in Chen's pro-independence ardor, lest it lead to a military crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

The State Department, after Chen's announcement in Taipei, said it had been assured that the move did not represent a change in the status quo. U.S. officials would watch closely to make sure that remains the case, the department said.

The United States, which has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself, has long opposed any unilateral change in the standoff between China and Taiwan. The island has been self-ruled since Chiang Kai-shek, the defeated Nationalist Party leader, fled there in 1949. But China, which regards Taiwan as a province, has vowed to prevent formal independence, by force if necessary.

Li's statement seemed designed to bolster Beijing's contention that, no matter what Chen's precise wording, he had scuttled a long-standing symbol of Taiwan's willingness to one day reunite with the mainland.

On ascending to power in 2000 and again on his reelection in 2004, Chen promised not to take steps that could be interpreted as a move toward formal independence, such as revising the constitution or changing the island's official name from Republic of China to Taiwan. One of the other pledges, Chinese commentators have pointed out, was not to abolish the unification council.

Reports from Taiwan said Chen's government had reassured U.S. officials by changing the language of the announcement. Originally, Chen planned to say he was "abolishing" the council, they said, but shifted to a statement that it had "ceased to function."

This amounted to little more than official recognition of reality, the reports said. The council, founded in 1990 by the then-governing Nationalist Party, has been inoperative since Chen came to power on an ardently pro-independence platform.

Chinese officials and analysts have warned that Chen could read the mild U.S. response as a green light for further steps emphasizing his desire to establish formal independence. In particular, Chinese officials have expressed fear Chen might try next to revise the constitution to underline its separation from China, or start calling the island Taiwan in official documents.

"We will have to remain highly vigilant for any complication in the situation," Li said, "and we are prepared to deal with any development."

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