A delegation of Taiwanese military officers visited Washington this month and met with officials from several U.S. government agencies in the most extensive contact of its kind in more than two decades.
The 20-member delegation, headed by Taiwanese air force Gen. Lin Yu-bao and comprising mainly mid-level officers holding ranks of major or colonel, met with officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the intelligence community and the Pentagon during the 10-day stay in the nation's capital, according to participants.
The group also held talks with members of both major political parties on Capitol Hill and stopped in Honolulu to meet officials from the U.S. military's Pacific Command headquarters, known as CINCPAC, before returning to Taipei, the Taiwanese capital.
The delegation's visit was unofficial--it was hosted not by the U.S. government but by two private organizations, the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Both are based in Washington.
Still, it marked the first time since the U.S. severed ties with Taiwan in favor of China in 1978 that a group of Taiwanese officers has traveled to Washington to discuss substantive policy issues. The only other contact Taiwanese officers have in Washington is a brief, highly restricted annual trip limited to Taipei's annual request for arms.
"On the policy level, the strategic level, it's the very first dialogue of its kind between us," said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei and one of two civilians who made the trip. "It's only a trial step, and the [Defense Ministry] here will review the results to see how to proceed, but I think it went well."
Beijing strenuously opposes U.S.-Taiwan military contacts, arguing that they constitute interference in China's internal affairs. The stance reflects Beijing's view that Taiwan is a part of China that must one day be reunited with the mainland.
Because of this sensitivity, the visit of the Taiwanese military officers unfolded quietly, with little publicity. Aside from the participants, few were apparently aware that it had taken place.
"I knew nothing about it," said Kenneth Lieberthal, who coordinated China policy in the Clinton White House.
Clearly aware that the trip constituted a political gamble, American organizers stressed in telephone interviews that their goal was to promote dialogue, not take sides on what is arguably the most emotional single issue in U.S.-China affairs.
"I'm trying to salvage a degree of dialogue in an extraordinarily difficult situation," said Kurt Campbell, CSIS vice president and a key architect of the visit.
He described the program as "an educational exchange on security issues" that he hopes might eventually grow to include nonmilitary participants, such as Foreign Ministry officials.
"The group received briefings from Democrats, Republicans, the executive branch, the legislative branch and those outside government so they could get a much better sense of the cacophony of American life," Campbell said. "These are junior people; it's an educational exchange."
Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a professor of history at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, said: "Our objective was to talk with these officers not directly about military subjects but about the range of issues the United States deals with. We didn't even get to China or Taiwan until the second or third day of the program."
Georgetown also offers academic courses to members of China's People's Liberation Army, but a university official said that because of the summer break, none were on campus during the visit by the Taiwanese.
The delegation's visit comes amid signs of a closeness between the United States and Taiwan that has developed since President Bush took office. Those signs include the most forthright presidential statement in decades of America's willingness to defend Taiwan against possible military aggression from China.
Only days after Bush pledged to do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," his administration offered to sell a hefty package of new weapons to Taipei. At the same time, U.S. relations with Beijing have suffered a series of setbacks.
The political symbolism of the Taiwanese military visit is only sharpened by Bush's toughened stance on military contacts with Beijing. After ordering a case-by-case review of such contacts, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is said to have personally rejected most meetings between U.S. and People's Liberation Army officers and ordered U.S. defense officials to maintain a discreet distance at conferences where their Chinese counterparts are present.
An educational program offered to Chinese army officers by Harvard University was suspended after an officer defected to the United States in December.
Taiwanese defense officials in Taipei declined to discuss the trip in detail, citing an agreement with the U.S. that bars them from publicly commenting either on military exchanges or on American arms sales. However, speaking privately, one senior officer made no attempt to conceal his sense of expectation that the Washington visit represented part of a larger convergence of U.S. and Taiwanese interests.
He also said increased contact would be important from a purely military operations viewpoint as Taiwan tries to procure increasingly sophisticated weaponry from the United States.
"We are democracies, we are natural allies," the officer said.
Yang indicated that the meetings had several subtle but cautionary messages for anyone in Taiwan's military who might have taken the Bush administration's new warmth as a green light for provocative behavior toward Beijing.
"There was an attempt to discourage any misperceptions regarding U.S. policy," Yang said.
Although Taiwan has in recent years blossomed into one of East Asia's few thriving democracies and a major global supplier of high-tech products, pressure from Beijing has kept it a diplomatic orphan with few official contacts in the West. The island is also denied membership in major international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.
Campbell, of CSIS, wrote in the Washington Post this year that Taiwan's military had experienced more sustained international isolation than any other such establishment in the world, including Iraq's or North Korea's.
"More dialogue on security issues with both [Taipei and Beijing] makes sense," he said in a telephone interview. "It's in our national interest."
In some respects, the delegation's visit represents the next step in a quiet but gradual increase in U.S. contacts with Taiwan's military over the last several years.
Those contacts were first expanded beyond the annual arms sales meeting by the Clinton administration in 1996, after China tried to intimidate Taiwan by firing missiles into its coastal waters ahead of the island's presidential election that year.
Official-level meetings between U.S. and Taiwanese representatives in the secluded environs of Monterey have reportedly become an exchange of ideas on national aims and possible plans of action.