WASHINGTON – Tuesday was not Taiwan's day at the White House, as President Bush announced that the U.S. had asked the island republic to cancel a referendum American officials feel would be provocative toward Beijing.
"We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo," Bush told reporters, "and the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan" — referring to President Chen Shui-bian (search) — "indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally."
The referendum, scheduled for March 20, would let Taiwan's electorate decide whether the island's government should demand that Beijing remove hundreds of missiles aimed at it and renounce the use of force.
Chen's decision to hold the vote, under a new law that gives him power to call a "defensive referendum" when the island's sovereignty faces imminent threat, is also seen as a means of shoring up his own support as a re-election campaign looms.
Chen is a strong proponent of independence for Taiwan, and both Bush administration and mainland Chinese officials say the referendum is an indirect step toward that.
After decades of Chinese civil war (search), the losing Nationalists withdrew to the island province of Taiwan in 1949 as the Communists took over in Beijing.
Decades of dictatorship under Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (search) followed, but following his death in 1975, Taiwan slowly opened its political process and now has a vibrant and often feisty democracy.
Although Taiwan's leaders have abandoned dreams of reunification with the mainland, Beijing still regards the island as a renegade province.
The mainland has threatened military action if Chen's referendum takes place, and on Tuesday Wen made no bones about opposing Taiwanese independence.
"The Chinese government respects the desire of people in Taiwan for democracy, but we must point out that the [Taiwanese leaders] are only using democracy as an excuse and attempt to resort to defensive referendums to split Taiwan away from China," he said. "Such separatist activities are what the Chinese side can absolutely not accept."
Wen refrained from belligerent comments and said the mainland hoped to reabsorb Taiwan "through peaceful means."
He added that until that happened, Beijing would seek to maintain a system of "one country, two systems."
"Stability can only be maintained through unswerving opposition to pro-independence activities," he added.
Earlier in the day, Bush honored Wen with the pomp normally associated with a state visit — a formal welcoming ceremony his administration has granted very few world leaders.
Bush's true gift to the premier was the administration's change in tone toward Taiwan, one markedly different from April 2001, when Bush said he would do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan as part of the U.S. policy of "strategic ambiguity."
Strategic ambiguity simply means the United States deliberately leaves unclear how it would react if mainland China used force against Taiwan, letting Beijing assume the worst.
If Taiwan upset the status quo, the United States would have to make clear its commitment to defending the island — which it would rather not do.
"What you're seeing here is the dropping of the ambiguity for both sides because we cannot sort-of imply to the Taiwan side that we're sort-of agnostic towards moves toward Taiwan independence," a senior administration official said. "But at the same time we've got to make it clear to the Chinese that this is not a green light for [them] to contemplate the use of force or coercion against Taiwan."
Taiwan's foreign minister suggested Tuesday his nation would understand why the United States had seemingly changed its policy.
"The United States doesn't want our referendum to affect the stability in the Taiwan Strait. We fully understand this," Foreign Minister Eugene Chien said in Taipei.
Since then-President Richard Nixon formally recognized Beijing as the legitimate Chinese government in 1972, the U.S. and mainland China have become economically intertwined. U.S.-Chinese trade is now $100 billion annually, up from $2.5 billion in 1978.
The two nations are often diplomatic partners in regional matters, especially concerning the North Korean nuclear threat.
The U.S., China, Russia, both Koreas and Japan have been working toward peacefully ending Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program, with Beijing leading the discussions and planning to host new talks as soon as all parties agree to a working arrangement.
"The goal is to dismantle a nuclear-weapons program in a verifiable and irreversible way, and that is a clear message that we are sending to the North Koreans," Bush said Tuesday. "We will continue to work with China and the other countries involved to solve this issue peacefully."
At Wen's arrival ceremony on the South Lawn, Bush gently chided Beijing on human rights and economic policies.
"The growth of economic freedom in China provides reason to hope that social, political and religious freedoms will grow there as well," Bush said. "In the long run, these freedoms are indivisible and essential to national greatness and national dignity."
Wen's aides said the premier had expected Bush to bring up China's huge trade surplus with the U.S., as well as the related issue of the value of China's currency, which administration officials say is being kept unnaturally low in order to make Chinese exports cheaper.
"We recognize that if prosperity's power is to reach into every corner of China, the Chinese government must fully integrate into the rules and norms of the international trading and finance system," Bush said.
Wen said China was taking steps to reduce the trade deficit and was considering a proposal to offer the president.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan did not give any details on Tuesday afternoon about any proposed plan.