WASHINGTON – In a series of moves already prompting huffs from Beijing, the Bush administration is continuing in its efforts to establish a new tone and tenor in its dealings with the communist leadership in China.
Late Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage met with the Dalai Lama at the State Department, and Wednesday the Tibetan holy man and perennial thorn in Beijing's side is scheduled to meet with President Bush.
The meetings happen the same week that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian is in the U.S., meeting with members of Congress and others -- a move Beijing has derided as an affront to the mainland Chinese.
The last time a Taiwanese leader traveled to the United States was in 1995 when the Clinton administration bowed to pressure from Capitol Hill and allowed then-President Lee Teng-hui to visit his alma mater Cornell University in New York State for a reunion. Beijing reacted bitterly, briefly downgrading ties with Washington.
No Dilly Dally with the Dalai
China is irked by the meetings with the Dalai Lama, arguing that he is not an official representative of China. The Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959, 10 years after China annexed Tibet in 1949 in the name of reunification. Tibet considers the Chinese occupation an invasion.
One administration official said the Dalai Lama's visit with the president is a private meeting in the White House residence and is not "intended as trying to send a signal to Beijing or affect U.S. policy in the least."
But while the Bush administration maintains a 30-year-old official policy opposing independence for Tibet, it does want China to show more religious tolerance to the province. Emphasizing its concern, Secretary Powell elevated the significance of the special coordinator for Tibetan issues last week by appointing Paula Dobriansky, currently undersecretary for global affairs, to take over the role. Dobriansky will also meet with the Dalai Lama during his visit.
"The issue of Tibet is one that we raise regularly with China," State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday. "It's part of our discussion with the Chinese. We do have a special coordinator for Tibetan issues and we would hope that our coordinator would be able to take up these issues with China as well."
Chen Makes the Rounds and Angers Beijing
Chen was in New York Tuesday, where he already has met with members of Congress and is expected to have a drop-in visit with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. No news conferences were scheduled, and his visit was regarded by the administration as a transit stop before Chen went to Latin America.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao called Washington's decision to let Chen make his three-day stopover in New York a sign of a harder U.S. line toward China.
China considers Taiwan a breakaway republic and while the United States maintains a "one China" policy, it has pledged to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China.
"This act will inevitably harm China-U.S. relations," Zhu told reporters. "And the harm done is not something that we would like to see. It is something done by the U.S. side."
Last year, during a stop in Los Angeles, Chen remained mostly in his hotel, and the Clinton administration discouraged members of Congress from visiting him. This visit is different, however, as the current administration feels "meetings between members of Congress and foreign leaders advance our national interest," according to one official.
Tougher Talk on China
Beijing's griping over the visits is nothing new, but the language from the communist Chinese reflects a recognition that subtle, but significant changes in U.S. policy are underway.
While official U.S. policy towards China remains the same, the Bush administration's actions reflect its consideration of China as a "competitor" rather than a "strategic partner," as former President Clinton referred to it.
"The Bush administration is being more forthright" about its relationship with China, said Constantine Menges, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former special assistant for national security affairs to President Reagan. "It's not so much a change of policy but a change of perspective. There is a movement toward greater realism in policy."
The change was amplified after a Chinese jetfighter collided with a U.S. military plane, forcing it to land on China's Hainan Island last month. For 11 days, 24 members of the American military crew were detained until the U.S. apologized for entering Chinese airspace without forewarning. The U.S. plane still sits on Hainan Island while officials negotiate its return.
Within weeks of the crew being released, the president said the United States would support Taiwan if it were threatened or attacked by communist China, Congress approved extensive military sales to Taiwan and the president announced his plans to deploy a missile defense shield.
"Those were three important answers to [China's] unfriendly, aggressive behavior," Menges said, adding that the administration will continue to maintain a peaceful relationship, but is upping its deterrent capabilities through clear language, the deployment of military hardware and the strengthening of its regional alliances.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this report