Secretary of State Colin Powell shook hands in Panama Monday with the President of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian. Officials in Washington were quick to say the encounter meant no change in U.S. China policy.
The handshake and brief chat between Mr. Powell and the Taiwanese leader came at a luncheon in Panama City, held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Panamanian independence.
The encounter, in a crowded reception room, was apparently not photographed. But the Secretary acknowledged it afterwards under questioning from reporters, saying he shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with Mr. Chen.
Mr. Powell is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. official to speak with a Taiwanese president since the United States broke relations with Taiwan and switched recognition to the Communist mainland more than two decades ago.
But officials here stressed that the chance encounter did not constitute a substantive meeting, and that there is no change in the United States' "one-China" policy that has prevailed since relations with Beijing were established in 1979.
Panama is one of about 25 countries that still have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The United States maintains an unofficial relationship including arms sales with Taiwan, and meetings between lower-level U.S. and Taiwanese officials are commonplace. The United States has also, over the years, facilitated international travel by Taiwanese officials through U.S. territory.
Mr. Chen came to Panama after a "transit stop" in New York where he met Mayor Michael Bloomberg and received an award from a human rights group. U.S. officials say he will return to Taiwan via a stop in Anchorage, Alaska.
China objects to any gesture seen as enhancing Taiwan's international legitimacy and it warned last week of consequences in Sino-U.S. relations if Mr. Chen engaged in "unsuitable" activities in New York.
Panama was the first stop for Mr. Powell on a two-day Central American trip that will also take him to Nicaragua and Honduras. He praised the Panamanian government of President Mireya Moscoso for its commitment to democracy, reforms, and what he said was its "superb" supervision of the Panama Canal, which the United States ceded back to Panama in 1999 after a long transition period.
The secretary said the United States would be responsive to Panamanian complaints about environmental clean-up problems at military firing ranges and other sites in the former U.S.-controlled canal zone. He said he expects a decision soon about whether Panama would be included in the U.S.-Central America free-trade zone agreement the United States hopes to conclude before the end of the year.