US Secretary of State Colin Powell risked angering China by shaking hands with President Chen Shui-bian (
Powell was talking to actor Sean Connery when Chen tapped Powell on the shoulder, according to a US Department of State source.
Powell turned and Chen offered his hand, which Powell duly shook. They said hello and exchanged pleasantries.
The exchange was the most senior-level meeting between the two countries' officials since 1979, when the US severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
When Powell was asked about whether he had met Chen, he said, "I shook hands with him, and we exchanged pleasantries."
The State Department sought to downplay the exchange.
"Secretary Powell and President Chen both attended events marking the 100th anniversary of Panamanian independence. They exchanged greetings. There were no official meetings scheduled between the two, and none took place," it said.
But according to sources with Taiwan's delegation in Panama, the exchange went beyond mere small-talk about the weather.
"Taiwan will fully support the anti-terrorist campaign led by the US and share in global responsibilities," Chen told Powell, according to the sources.
The president thanked Powell for the US government's high-profile reception for him during his two-night stay in New York as well as the US' long-term support for Taiwan.
China reacted to the exchange by reiterating its opposition to any official contact between Taiwan and the US.
"China is firmly opposed to any form of official contact between the United States and Taiwan," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue (
As part of celebrations for Panama's independence day, Chen met leaders from more than 10 countries. Taiwan's Central American diplomatic allies were all present at the anniversary activities and their representatives met Chen.
According to Minister of Foreign Affairs Eugene Chien (簡又新), Chen's visit to Panama had three goals: to attend the anniversary celebration, to attend activities with other countries and to fortify Taiwan's relationship with its diplomatic allies.
"All the Central American nations we share official diplomatic ties with attended the ceremony, and that shows the relationship between Taiwan and these countries is not threatened by China," Chien said.
Taiwanese media were closely following any Chen-Powell interactions. As the March presidential election draws near, opposition parties are concerned that events putting Chen in a positive light would hurt their chances.
An official with the Presidential Office warned against exaggerating the importance of Chen's encounter with Powell.
"Powell's major mission was to grace the Panama anniversary rather than promoting Taiwan. We will not blow up the effects of the meeting between the president and Powell to an inappropriate degree," said Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), deputy secretary-general of the Presidential Office.
"The meeting mainly signifies the friendliness between Taiwan and the US, and it is a boost for Taiwan, not just for President Chen," he said.
As well as meeting Powell, Chen also got to chat with James Bond star Connery.
During a march in the morning, Connery approached Chen and shook hands with him, a Taiwanese official said.