The US has been forced to quell a number of foreign policy spats in recent days as normally blunt-talking Secretary of State Colin Powell struggles to learn the tactful art of "diplospeak," the State Department conceded on Tuesday.
At least twice in the past week, Powell has made unscripted remarks about extremely sensitive international disputes in Asia and the Middle East that have infuriated countries in those regions and required US diplomats to engage in serious damage-control efforts.
On March 9, Powell angered China by referring to Taiwan, which it views as a rebel province, as the "Republic of China" twice during testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, causing the State Department to scramble to assure Beijing that its policy toward Taiwan had not changed.
Beijing has long opposed the official recognition of Taiwan by officials of countries that maintain diplomatic relations with China, a condition that also extends to the use of Taiwan's official name.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said on Tuesday that China had made "solemn representations" to Washington expressing its "great concern and dissatisfaction" over the incident.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher acknowledged that China had sought clarification about the use of the term and that "we replied very clearly that the US policy has not changed."
"The US side emphasized it was purely a slip of the tongue by the secretary of state and did not mean any change to the "one China" policy pursued by the US side," Boucher said in a routine briefing.
Boucher said that Washington had not apologized to China but refused to say if State Department officials had suggested that Powell not use the term in future.
"I'm not going to get into our discussions with the secretary, I'd just say that we don't normally use the term and I don't think we'll be using it in the future," he said.
On March 7, speaking at a hearing before the House International Relations Committee, Powell referred to the holy city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, incensing the Arab world and possibly complicating already fragile Middle East peace efforts.
Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital and Israel's claim over the whole of the city, the Arab eastern part of which it captured and annexed in the 1967 Middle East war, has never been recognized by the international community.
US policy has long held that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and Washington has kept its embassy in Tel Aviv to avoid inflaming the dispute.
Boucher sought to downplay the negative reactions from the Arabs and the Chinese, describing their responses as inquiries about possible subtle policy changes rather than protestations.