The United States Monday downplayed a move by Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian to halt operations of an advisory council on unifying the island with China. The State Department said the U.S. understanding is that the council has been frozen, not abolished, and that Mr. Chen is not altering the status quo with Beijing.

Officials here acknowledge there were urgent U.S. diplomatic contacts with Taiwan before the announcement, and they are framing the move by Mr. Chen as an action that need not upset the delicate status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

The Taiwanese president announced Monday he was shutting down the National Unification Council, a body set up in 1990 to foster unification talks with the Communist mainland.

Mr. Chen had indicated a month ago he intended to eliminate the council and a related set of unification guidelines, prompting China to warn that the action would trigger a serious crisis.

But his remarks Monday appeared to stop short of an outright abolition of the council, saying though that it would cease functioning and would lose budget funding.

At a news briefing here, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. reading is that the council had been frozen not abolished and said that in the same announcement Mr. Chen reaffirmed his commitment to uphold the status quo with China:

"I would note today that President Chen reaffirmed his continuing commitment to the pledges he made in his 2000 inaugural address not to change the status-quo across the straits, and we continue to stress the need for Beijing to open a dialogue with the elected leadership in Taiwan," said Adam Ereli. "On the question of the National Unification Council, it is our understanding that President Chen did not abolish it, and he reaffirmed Taiwan's commitment to the status-quo. We attach great importance to that commitment."

The spokesman said the United States remains committed to a one-China policy, based on the three communiqués with Beijing and the Taiwan Relations Act approved by Congress at the time U.S. recognition was shifted from Taiwan to the mainland in 1979.

He said the United States opposes unilateral changes in the status-quo by either side and does not support Taiwanese independence.

The United States has no defense treaty with Taiwan but is committed to providing the island with defensive arms under the Taiwan Relations Act.

The unofficial U.S. relationship with the island has been strained in recent years by pro-independence statements by Mr. Chen.

Beijing maintains that Taiwan is part of China. In March of last year, its parliament approved an anti-secession law authorizing the use of non-peaceful means if Taiwan formally declared independence.