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U.S.: Bush Offers Concession On Taiwan To Visiting Chinese Premier

U.S. President George W. Bush offered a key concession on Taiwan yesterday when he welcomed Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to the White House for their first-ever meeting.

Washington, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has offered China a key concession as tensions between China and Taiwan are mounting over possible moves by the island to assert its independence.

After welcoming new Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to the White House for their first-ever meeting yesterday, Bush warned Taiwan that the United States "opposes" any move toward independence.

Bush, seated with Wen in the Oval Office, told reporters he is against a referendum that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has pledged to hold that might point the island toward independence and anger China. Bush said: "We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo."

That statement was welcomed warmly by Wen and marked a sharpening of America's traditional stance that it does not support independence moves by Taiwan, which China sees as a breakaway province that must one day return to the fold.

Praising Washington's relationship with Beijing, which is now one of America's top trade partners, Bush said: "As our two nations work constructively across areas of common interest, we are candid about our disagreements. The growing strength and maturity of our relationship allows us to discuss our differences, whether over economic issues, Taiwan, Tibet or human rights and religious freedom, in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect."

In an apparent exchange of concessions, China agreed to talks with the United States on the tightly held yuan currency and to address the trade gap, which could hit $120 billion this year.

Wen said China would take the trade deficit issue very seriously, but he gave no further details on what China might do with the yuan. The White House said China agreed to hold talks on the yuan currency in Beijing in January.

Bush also told Wen the market should determine the yuan's value. Washington accuses China of keeping its currency artificially weak, giving its exports a 40 percent advantage over American products at the expense of American jobs.

Like Bush, Wen sought to underscore the importance of China's relationship with the United States: "At present, we are at a crucial juncture of carrying our relationship into the future, where we face both opportunities and challenges. The changing situation has continued to add new substance to our relations. The fundamental interests of our two peoples and the people across the world require that China and the United States step up cooperation, increase mutual trust, and further push forward constructive and cooperative bilateral relations. In the final analysis, China-U.S. relations must go on improving. It is with this earnest desire that I have come to visit your country."

Some critics in the U.S. media, including right-wing hawk William Kristol of "The Evening Standard" newspaper, accused Bush of making a "dramatic and dangerous shift" in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

But the White House insists there's been no change on Taiwan policy, which has always been a delicate balancing act for Washington, which supplies Taiwan with arms even as it does not recognize the island as a sovereign nation.

Tensions have escalated across the Taiwan Strait since November when the island's parliament passed a law allowing referendums. China accuses Taiwanese President Chen of wanting to use a referendum to ratify a new constitution that would split the island from the mainland.

China has warned that any move by Chen toward independence could trigger war. But Wen told reporters in Washington that he would seek peaceful unity between mainland China and Taiwan as long as there is a "glimmer of hope."

Experts say Bush's unusual public reprimand of Taiwan was the result of growing U.S. frustration with Chen, who appears not to have gotten Washington's message, despite a secret trip to Taipei recently by a senior White House aide.

Bonnie Glaser is a China expert with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. She tells RFE/RL that Bush's move is an important adjustment to U.S. policy, but not a fundamental transformation:

"We have moved further toward strategic clarity, but we have not completely abandoned ambiguity. What I mean by that is that we have not clearly said exactly under what conditions we would send force, we would use military means to respond to a conflict or the use of force by China against Taiwan. So I don't think strategic ambiguity is completely gone," Glaser said.

What is clear from Wen's visit is the emphasis that both leaders placed on keeping the U.S.-China relationship on track, despite differences.

"The U.S. and China have an increasingly complex yet interdependent relationship, and that, I believe, is in the economic realm as well as in the security realm. I think that we will continue to have differences with China, and there will be areas we can work together on. The challenge is trying to manage our differences in ways that they don't disrupt the overall relationship," Glaser said.

Glaser says that includes human rights and religious freedom, which have long been thorns in the side of U.S.-China relations. How Washington plans to press China --- if at all -- on future human rights violations remains unclear.

Bush suggested that such problems will eventually just work themselves out. He said increasing economic freedoms in China will eventually lead to improved political representation and civil rights:

"China has discovered that economic freedom leads to national wealth. The growth of economic freedom in China provides reason to hope that social, political, and religious freedoms will grow there, as well. In the long run, these freedoms are indivisible and essential to national greatness and national dignity," Bush said.

Bush also said he and Wen spent a lot of time talking about North Korea and how to make the Korean peninsula nuclear-free.

But Bush rejected an offer yesterday by North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons projects in return for the United States providing energy aid and removing Pyongyang from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Bush said America's goal is not to freeze Pyongyang's program but to dismantle it.

The Chinese are working to revive talks between North Korea, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China after a five-month pause. A U.S. official said yesterday that China believes progress toward new talks is being made, but there is no clear date on the horizon.