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US-China Antagonism Heats Up Over Taiwan Defense Talks

File Photo: A Taiwanese missile test
by Stephen Collinson
Washington (AFP) March 10, 2002
US and Taiwan military experts and officials Sunday checked into a luxury Florida resort for an arms conference which has sparked outrage in Beijing, mostly due to the planned attendance of the nationalist island's defence minister.

Minister Tang Yao-ming's visit to the conference, sponsored by top US defense companies has already cracked the veneer of cordiality which both sides applied to deeply divisive issues during President George W. Bush's talks in Beijing last month.

China has reacted furiously, calling in the US ambassador to Beijing Clark Randt for a dressing down, and branding the trip as an "open violation" of Sino-US agreements certain to damage Washington-Beijing and cross-Straits relations.

The United States hit back by saying Tang was travelling to the conference in St. Petersburg, Florida in a purely private capacity, and was not on official business.

The meeting comes after China last week signalled a 17 percent rise in its defense budget -- a move which triggered disquiet in Taipei, and more suspicion among sectors of the US military establishment which view China as a looming threat to US interests.

China has at least 300 ballistic missiles along its southeast coast trained on Taiwan. The island's defence ministry expects the number to reach 800 by 2006.

Taiwan and China separated in 1949 following a civil war and Beijing has threatened to use force to reclaim the island should it declare independence.

Beijing is especially angry over the Florida conference as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a hawk on China matters, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs James Kelly will be there and are likely to meet Tang.

But US officials say China is wrong to be so concerned and that no US-China conventions are being breached by Tang's presence at the "United States Taiwan Defense Summit 2002" which is organised by the US-Taiwan Business Council.

"All visits to China by Taiwanese officials are by definition private, as we don't have any diplomatic relations with Taiwan," said a State Department official on condition of anonymity, with a carefully worded statement unlikely to appease Beijing.

And another senior official said Friday he "wouldn't be surprised" if there was a Kelly-Tang meeting.

The Pentagon declined to say whether Wolfowitz would formally meet Tang.

Nevertheless, Tang's presence at the conference is a clear sign of the Bush administration's expansion of previously strict rules governing visits by Taiwanese officials to the United States.

He will be the first Taiwanese defense minister allowed to take part in such a meeting, although some of his predecessors, and other top Taipei officials have made frequent transit stops in the United States.

Bush, who has publicly backed Beijing's 'One China' policy, has tweaked Beijing's ire over Taiwan several times, declaring he would do "whatever it takes" to defend the island and signing off on a substantial arms package.

The US president is bound by law to offer Taiwan the means to defend itself.

Delegates at the summit, which eases off on Sunday afternoon with a round of golf on the pristine Rennaissance Vinoy resort course, include members of the de facto US embassy in Taiwan, the American Institute.

Members of the US armed services, Taiwan's top representative in Washington C.J. Chen, and reps from top US arms firms will also sit down with high ranking officials from the State and Defense departments to discuss Taiwan's defense procurement needs.

The high-powered conference is sponsored by Bell Helicopter, Boeing, General Dynamics, Honeywell, Lockhead Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Sikorsky.

Taiwanese officials in Washington say that the meetings will permit Tang to talk through requirements Taiwan has years into the the 21st Century.

But, in deference to a US desire to avoid unnecessarily antagonising China, they would not say whether Tang, who has no other US engagements, would indeed meet Wolfowitz or Kelly.

In keeping with a desire for confidentiality, the summit will be strictly off the record, and members of the press will be barred from all sessions.

All rights reserved. 2002 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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Taiwan Worried About China's Increased Military Budget
Taipei (AFP) Mar 8, 2002
Taiwan said Friday that expansion in military spending of its rival China would only cause more instability across the Taiwan Strait.

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