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Blunt Bush message for Taiwan

From John King, CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met at the White House.
President Bush and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met at the White House.

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U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to the White House. CNN's Suzanne Malveaux has more (December 9)
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White House

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has bluntly served notice that he opposes plans for a referendum in Taiwan which his administration views as a means of stoking pro-independence sentiment.

Bush came to office three years ago characterizing China as a "strategic competitor" but told Premier Wen Jiaboa -- who met Bush at the White House Tuesday -- the two nations were now proving they can be "partners in diplomacy."

Speaking with Wen at his side in the Oval Office, Bush reaffirmed the so-called "One China" policy of the United States and elaborated in a way that left no room for diplomatic nuance.

"We oppose any unilateral decision to change, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo," he said.

"And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo -- which we oppose."

Wen nodded as Bush's remarks were translated, and he said Beijing "appreciated" the president's statement.

CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy, speaking from Taiwan Wednesday, said the island's Foreign Minister Eugene Chien said Taipei "understood" the U.S. concerns about the referendum.

Taiwan wanted to assure Washington the vote would not deal with the touchy issue of unification with China, Chien said on state radio Wednesday.

Taiwan was giving no indication that the referendum would be delayed or cancelled, however, Chinoy said.

The White House insist there is no policy change on Taiwan, but privately senior officials do concede a shift in rhetorical emphasis.

These officials insist the shift -- and the pressure on Taiwan -- is the result of statements by Taiwan's leaders that the White House views as trying to foment pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan.

The officials dismiss those who suggest the White House is getting cozy with Beijing as a way of thanking China for its support in the so-called "six-party" talks designed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

But Wen indicated to Bush it was too early to call a second round of talks on the issue, according to a U.S. official, as differences among the parties had not yet narrowed sufficiently.

"They (the Chinese) indicated that they felt there was a developing consensus on this issue but that we had not yet reached the point where a new round, a second round, of six-party multilateral talks could be convened," the official told reporters. (Full story)

When Bush took office he raised eyebrows when saying he would do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. In those statements, the president went on to say he opposed any unilateral steps by Taiwan to push for independence.

But the tough rhetoric promising to defend Taiwan was trumpeted by conservatives as proof Bush was going to take a tougher line in relations with Beijing.

Now, Bush's statements are the source of disappointment in Taiwan and among some conservatives in Washington who say the United States should support democratic aspirations in Taiwan.

At issue now is a planned referendum in which Taiwan's government plans to ask citizens to vote on whether they want China to end the missile buildup across the Taiwan Straits and promise not to use military force against Taiwan.

Taiwan's president is up for re-election next year and the White House views the referendum as a thinly veiled political effort to fuel the independence movement.

Determined to quiet what it views as a potentially troubling political storm, Bush dispatched a National Security Council official to Taiwan last week to make clear Washington's opposition to the referendum -- in the process abandoning what this and prior U.S. administrations have called "strategic ambiguity" -- deliberately vague answers about policy toward Taiwan.

"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 U.S. official said in explaining the new effort.

"But at the same time we've got to make it clear to the Chinese side that this is not a green light for you to contemplate the use of force or coercion against Taiwan."

Wen said China's position was that it would push for peaceful reunification so long as there was "a glimmer of hope."

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