Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) has angered Taiwanese officials and lawmakers by making unusually strong comments denying that the island is an independent nation and suggesting Taiwan should unify with China.
Washington usually avoids weighing in on the touchy split, which arose when Mao Zedong's (search) communist army won control of the Chinese mainland in 1949 and anti-communist forces took refuge on Taiwan.
But Powell waded into the unification question Monday in televised interviews during a one-day visit to China.
According to a State Department transcript, Powell told Hong Kong's Phoenix Television: "There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy."
That was a departure from the U.S. government's longtime "one China policy," a purposely fuzzy approach that merely "acknowledges" people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait (search) agree there is one China. Washington also insists differences should be settled peacefully and in recent years has emphasized that the Taiwanese people should have a say in the matter.
Taiwan is highly sensitive to any kind of language — especially from Washington — that might suggest their democratic island is part of the communist mainland. Taiwanese view China's government to be repressive and have spent decades resisting rule by Beijing, which occasionally threatens to use force to bring the island under its sway.
Rebuking Powell without mentioning him by name, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian told visiting former South Korean President Kim Young-sam on Tuesday that the island is a separate nation.
"Taiwan is absolutely a sovereign, independent nation. It's a great nation, and it absolutely does not belong to the People's Republic of China. That is the present situation, that is the reality," Chen said.
Using the island's official name, Republic of China, Chen said no country had the right to tell Taiwan it isn't independent.
"Other countries, whether they have official diplomatic relations with our country or not, have no way of influencing or deny the present situation and the fact that the Republic of China or Taiwan is a sovereign, independent nation," Chen said.
Taiwanese Premier Yu Shyi-kun made a terse response to Powell's comment. "Taiwan is a sovereign, independent nation. This is reality," Yu told reporters Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Mark Chen told lawmakers that Powell used "heavy language" that left "a deep impression" on Taiwan. He also complained Washington didn't warn Taiwan that Powell would depart from long-standing policy.
"They [America] hope that we'll try hard not to give them any surprises. They've really dropped an extremely big surprise on us," said Chen, adding that Taiwan had asked for explanations from U.S. officials in Washington and Taiwan.
Lawmakers with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party also complained.
"This kind of talk ignores reality. The Democratic Progressive Party's legislative caucus absolutely won't accept it," lawmaker Tsai Huang-liang said.
In another televised interview, Powell appeared to suggest Taiwan and China both favor unification. He said he didn't want to see either side "take unilateral action that would prejudice an eventual outcome, a reunification that all parties are seeking."
The Taiwan issue is extremely awkward for the United States. Washington doesn't want to appear to be forcing Taiwan to become part of the communist mainland. But the United States doesn't want Taiwan to provoke a war with China — a conflict that would likely involve U.S. forces.