Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, Thursday held what Mr. Powell termed a candid meeting at the State Department. They agreed on the need to continue Chinese-sponsored talks on North Korea's nuclear program, but clashed publicly over the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Secretary Powell and Mr. Li have established a close working relationship, as evidenced by their four meetings and at least 15 telephone conversations already this year.
But the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remains a major point of contention, underlined by comments at a joint press appearance that followed their hour-long meeting Thursday.
Mr. Li said his government attaches great importance to Bush administration assurances, repeated by Mr. Powell only moments before, that the United States will continue following a one-China policy, recognizing only Beijing, and opposes Taiwanese independence.
But the Chinese minister challenged continued sales of U.S. defensive weapons to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, approved by Congress at the time of the switch in recognition in 1979. He said a country's domestic law should not go above its international commitments.
"We are firmly opposed to the sale of weapons by any foreign country to Taiwan, which is a part of China, because we don't think it is in the interest of our peaceful efforts towards the resolution of the Taiwan question, and it does not serve the interest of peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits, and eventually it will not serve the interests of those countries who are prepared to sell weapons to Taiwan," said China's foreign minister.
In a gesture unusual for the post-meeting press appearances, Secretary Powell offered a rebuttal to Mr. Li, saying U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are measured to fit the island's defense needs, and that the 25-year-old policy has served the interests of all those involved.
"As I said to the minister, our obligations under our domestic law with respect to the Taiwan relations act, in our judgment, are not in any way inconsistent with our one-China policy and our obligations under that one-China policy and the three communiqués," Mr. Powell said. "And we always measure what is sold to Taiwan on the basis of what they need for their self-defense. And I think our policy has served both nations, the United States and China, very, very well, and Taiwan very, very well over the course of a number of years."
Mr. Powell said the United States remains solidly behind the North Korea nuclear talks, despite the failure to convene another round in September, as all six participants including Pyongyang had agreed in June.
He said he still hopes the negotiations will be able to move forward in the not-too-distant future and that the North Koreans will show more flexibility with regard to setting a date.
The secretary said the United States and its partners at the talks had laid out a fair and equitable way forward at the last round, linking disarmament with security guarantees for Pyongyang, and said he still believes the process will be successful.
Mr. Powell said he and Mr. Li had also discussed the international response to the crisis in Sudan's western Darfur region.
He said under questioning that he had raised with Mr. Li the case of Zhao Yan, a Chinese employee of the New York Times in Beijing, arrested two weeks ago on suspicion of illegally passing state secrets to foreigners.
He said Mr. Li said he would look into the matter, but gave no other response.