President Bush meets Tuesday at the White House with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Their talks are expected to focus on trade, North Korea and especially Taiwan.
In public, White House officials insist there has been no change in the administration's policy on China and Taiwan. "The president's position is very clear and it remains unchanged when it comes to Taiwan and China," said Spokesman Scott McClellan.
But behind the scenes, in private meetings with reporters, there are signs of irritation with Taiwan.
In interviews with major international news agencies, unnamed administration officials are quoted as warning Taiwan against any unilateral steps that could move the island toward independence. These officials also send a message to China that such action by Taiwan should not be seen as a pretext for the use of force.
These comments seem to have been sparked by recent political developments in Taipei that have increased tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Last month, Taiwan's parliament passed a law allowing referendums, and President Chen Shui-bian is now pushing for a "defense referendum" in March.
In that referendum, voters would be asked to call on China to stop threatening the island and remove missiles aimed at Taiwan. The Associated Press quotes a senior U.S. official as saying the whole idea makes the Bush administration uncomfortable, adding Taiwan seems to be "pushing the envelope" on the independence issue.
It is unclear if these words were designed simply to ease tensions prior to the Chinese Prime Minister's visit to the White House. But they could indicate a change in the traditional ambiguity of America's "one China" policy.
The Chinese regard Taiwan as a renegade province. The United States has promised, under the Taiwan Relations Act, to come to the defense of Taiwan if attacked by the mainland, while insisting that the status of Taiwan should be negotiated by Taipei and Beijing.
While Taiwan will undoubtedly be a key issue on the agenda for the White House talks, it will not be the only area of contention discussed. President Bush's spokesman says the president will press human rights concerns, and wants to talk to Prime Minister Wen about prospects for reviving six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Scott McClellan adds economic matters are also expected to weigh heavily in their discussions.
"Premier Wen does oversee the Chinese economy, and the president and his senior economic team will talk with him about the increasingly important bilateral trading relationship as well as global economic issues," he said.
On Monday, the Chinese prime minister went to the heart of New York's financial district where he addressed a group of business executives. He also rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Mr. Wen arrived in New York on Sunday and met with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.