updated 10/28/2004 12:10:06 PM ET 2004-10-28T16:10:06

Taiwan’s government on Thursday applauded U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s decision to back away from his earlier controversial claim that both China and Taiwan favor unification.

Powell’s original reference to “a reunification that all parties are seeking” and his comment that self-ruled Taiwan “is not independent” had drawn praise from Beijing and stunned Taipei. The Taiwanese feared that U.S. policy had changed and that Washington was starting to pressure the democratic island to join China.

Powell clarified his remarks in a TV interview Wednesday with the U.S. television channel CNBC. He said the goal “really is to have a peaceful resolution of the problem” between Taiwan and China, which split amid civil war in 1949.

Most Taiwanese believe China is repressive and don’t want to be ruled by the Communist government. But Beijing insists the island, just 100 miles off China’s coast, must eventually unify or face invasion — a conflict that could involve U.S. forces, who have helped defend Taiwan before.

For decades, Washington’s policy has been to avoid endorsing a specific resolution to the feud. It has simply urged both sides to work out their differences peacefully. In recent years, it has added that Taiwan’s people should have a say in any outcome.

Taiwan feels reassured
On Thursday, Taiwanese Presidential Office spokesman James Huang declined to say whether the government thinks Powell misspoke or was signaling a stronger policy.

But Huang said Powell’s clarification “was a positive development and helpful to clarify the whole incident and we will continue to communicate with the U.S. side.”

Taiwan’s representative in Washington, David Lee, told TVBS cable news that U.S. officials said Washington’s policy hasn’t changed.

“They’ve told me again that America’s position for the past 30 years is for the two sides to use dialogue to peacefully resolve the problem. It’s not to peaceful unification,” Lee said.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s view is that Taiwan is an independent nation and that only its voters can determine the island’s fate — a position that makes Beijing bristle.

No China comment
In Beijing on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue declined to comment specifically on Powell’s latest remarks.

“You have to ask the American side how to interpret Secretary Powell’s comments about Taiwan during his media interviews,” she said.

But she added that Powell “made a clear-cut statement on the American position” while in China and that his stopover was “a very meaningful visit” that advanced relations.

Powell on Monday also stunned Taiwan by rejecting the island’s claims that it is a sovereign nation. He appeared to support Beijing’s claims over Taiwan by saying, “There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent.”

Powell didn’t clarify those remarks in his CNBC interview.

Washington doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but treats the island like an independent nation for most practical purposes. The United States also sells weapons to Taiwan.

John Tkacik, an Asia analyst, criticized Powell in a scathing essay on the Web site of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Tkacik said Washington must reaffirm that it doesn’t take a position on Taiwan’s sovereignty “because sovereignty resides in the people of that country.”

He warned that unless Powell clearly corrects himself and reaffirms long-standing U.S. policy, his comments will signal China that it’s acceptable to take over Taiwan by force.

“That is a green light for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait that the Chinese would be only too happy to observe,” he said.

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