Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spent less than 24 hours in China this week, but that was enough to stir up a diplomatic tempest with some unorthodox and apparently unintended remarks about U.S. policy on Taiwan.
The fuss demonstrated anew the high level of tension across the Taiwan Strait and the strained formulas that China and Taiwan use to argue about their long standoff. But statements by Powell also drew attention to an expanding gap between U.S. policy, which has not changed in a quarter-century, and Taiwan's steadily evolving idea of itself as an independent country determined not to be swallowed up by China.
Powell, in a pair of television interviews Monday in Beijing, said the United States holds that there is only one China and that Taiwan is not an independent nation. He went on to suggest that the Taiwanese and the Americans, in addition to the Chinese, are seeking to bring about the island's reunification with the mainland.
The comments, broadcast by CNN and the Hong Kong-based Phoenix news channel, veered noticeably from the standard formulations of U.S. policy, which were worked out in three U.S.-Chinese communiques issued after President Richard M. Nixon resumed contacts with China in 1972.
In the communiques, the United States recognized that the Beijing government maintains there is only one China and that it includes Taiwan, but did not explicitly adopt that as the U.S. view. Standard U.S. policy since then has been to urge a peaceful outcome "acceptable to people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait," without defining what the outcome would be.
Alarmed, Taiwan's leaders immediately accused Powell of springing an unfair surprise with a major policy shift in one of the world's most volatile areas, and reaffirmed their passionate insistence that the island is independent -- in fact, if not in law.
"Other countries, with or without formal diplomatic relations with us, cannot affect or deny the current situation and the fact that the Republic of China, or Taiwan, is a sovereign, independent country," President Chen Shui-bian told reporters in Taipei on Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Mark Chen more directly told the Taiwanese parliament that Powell's remarks "left a deep impression on Taiwan," according to news agency reports from the Taiwanese capital. "They have said they didn't want any surprises from us, but they gave us a big surprise," he added, referring to the United States.
Foreign Minister Chen sought an explanation Wednesday in a meeting with Douglas Paal, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei. Protesters, meanwhile, gathered outside the institute's building to denounce Powell's comments.
Chinese officials, who regard Taiwan as a province that must be reintegrated into the mainland at any price -- including war -- reacted positively. Powell's comments, made after a morning of meetings with senior Chinese leaders, closely matched their own views.
"Some people have said Powell made a slip of the tongue, but I don't believe it," Zhang Mingqing, spokesman for the government's Taiwan Affairs Office, said at a briefing Wednesday.
Some analysts suggested Powell's comments might have indicated dissatisfaction with Chen's government, whose officials last month issued a series of bellicose statements unwelcome in Washington. The Bush administration, absorbed by the war in Iraq and the election campaign, has tried to keep tensions down across the Taiwan Strait.
But U.S. officials were quoted as saying Powell had just used the wrong language. The State Department, without directly disavowing its boss, issued a clarification that said the United States' "one-China policy" had not changed. The U.S. government regards Beijing "as the full legal government of China and acknowledges China's position that there is one China and that Taiwan is part of China," a statement said.
The final outcome, the statement continued, should be reached without force and be "acceptable to people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait." There was no mention of Powell's suggestion that the outcome would be "a reunification that all parties are seeking."
Chen Shui-bian's government, which entered a second four-year term in May, is not seeking reunification; he was reelected on a hard-edged independence platform. Judging by opinion polls and election results, a majority of the island's 23 million inhabitants agree with him.
But when U.S. policy was worked out in the joint communiques with China, Taiwan's Nationalist Party was still in charge, having run the island since fleeing China after its defeat by Mao Zedong's Communist troops in 1949. For the Nationalists, one China was not a problem -- they just felt they should be running it.
Since then, the Nationalist Party has become a minority in a democratic Taiwan and, even among Nationalist partisans, the idea of reuniting with Communist-run China has lost much of its appeal. Officials for President Chen's Democratic Progressive Party have proposed that the solution might be a loose association along the lines of the British Commonwealth.
Mark Chen, Taiwan's foreign minister, suggested in a recent interview that, given these changes in Taiwan, the United States should consider updating its one-China policy. A senior presidential adviser, Koo Kwang-ming, three weeks ago took out full-page advertisements in several U.S. and Taiwanese newspapers, including The Washington Post, urging the idea on the Bush administration.