China demands Washington block Taiwan defense minister's visit

Friday, March 8, 2002

BEIJING -- Calling for an end to growing U.S.-Taiwan military ties, China angrily demanded Thursday that the United States block the Taiwanese defense minister from attending a private conference in Florida next week.

"We demand that the United States ... correct their wrong decisions and stop these official and military exchanges," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan. He warned that Washington was risking damaging its relations with Beijing.

Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and protests gestures by Washington or other governments that hint at official contact. But the American trip of Tang Yiau-ming, the first by a Taiwanese defense minister in decades, appears unusually worrisome for Beijing.

It comes amid gestures by President Bush that have made Taiwanese regard him as more supportive than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who they thought favored Beijing.

The United States broke off relations with Taiwan in 1979 in order to form ties with Beijing, but keeps an unofficial embassy on the island and is its biggest weapons supplier.

Today, U.S.-Taiwanese military ties are better than they have been since 1979, when American forces stationed on the island to ward off Chinese invasion were withdrawn.

Exchanges have expanded, and the quantity and quality of American weapons sold to Taiwan have increased. U.S. law includes a vague threat to China that American forces might help defend the island. The Pentagon carries out extensive periodic reviews of Taiwanese defenses.

Taiwanese have been encouraged by Bush's approval of the biggest arms sale to the island in recent years. During a visit to Beijing in February, Bush told an audience of university students, "We will help Taiwan protect herself if provoked."

Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists retreated to the island after losing a civil war on the mainland to Mao Tse-tung's communists.

Beijing contends the island, once a dictatorship but now a thriving democracy, has no right to conduct foreign relations.

"China is against any official exchanges between Taiwan and other countries," said Kong, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Kong repeated China's insistence that Washington abide by joint U.S.-Chinese communiques. They include an American promise to reduce and eventually stop weapons sales to Taiwan.

Tang, the Taiwanese minister, is going to the United States to attend a three-day conference sponsored by the private U.S.-Taiwan Business Council. Most of those attending represent U.S. military contractors.

The council's chairman is Frank C. Carlucci, a secretary of defense under former U.S. President Ronald Reagan when Bush's father was vice president.

A spokesman for Taiwan's Ministry of Defense shrugged off the possibility of Chinese protests over Tang's presence at the conference.

"They'll get upset about any kind of exchange we have with America," said the spokesman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

EDITOR'S NOTE: AP correspondent William Foreman in Taipei contributed to this report.

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