U.S. President Bill Clinton is planning a trip to China later
this year to help strengthen a key relationship that has vastly
improved over the past 12 months. But if he wants to make further
headway, Mr. Clinton must be frank with Beijing about an always
sensitive issue: Taiwan. Now is the time to deal with question. As
the present standoff with Iraq makes clear, an ounce or prevention
is worth more than a pound of cure.
American academics and officials who have had recent meetings with
Chinese counterparts to pave the way for the summit say Beijing is
eager to quickly reverse what China regards as Taiwan's momentum
toward de facto independence. This past weekend, for example,
Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party announced after a
meeting to evaluate China policy that most members not only still
insist that Taiwan is independent, but also refuse to make
concessions to Beijing on sovereignty. The DPP is not a majority
party and some of its top officials have called for closer relations
with Beijing. Yet its very existence is a thorn in the side of
Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who seeks to leave his mark on
history by moving on the Taiwan issue following the handover on of
Notwithstanding China's nervous eagerness and the very real U.S.
interest in getting along with the world's most populous country.
Washington must not make placating Beijing its first priority, as it
appears now to be doing. This would amount to abandoning a fellow
democracy, an act that would send a chilling signal to U. S. allies
in the region. It also would fail to build the right foundations for
Sino-U.S. relations for years to come.
From the U.S. perspective, there is a whole host of issues to
tackle with Beijing. China's human rights violations, its
subjugation of Tibet and its trade protectionism all share the stage
with Taiwan as irritants in the relationship. U.S. officials may
want to convey to China that Washington too has priorities.
In Beijing's mind, however, no other issue even comes close to the
importance of bringing Taiwan into the fold.
The Chinese government pays very little heed to what others have
to say about its treatment of dissidents or of Tibetans. With regard
to Taiwan, however, China claims that the U.S. is directly
responsible for the island's refusal to discuss reunification and
its daring to even broach the subject of independence. Beijing
believes that if Washington terminated weapons sales to Taiwan and
stated clearly that it would not defend Taiwan against a Chinese
attach, we would hear no more talk in Taiwan of any kind of
There are disturbing signs that Mr. Clinton is listening much more
sympathetically than he should to Beijing's story. Two former senior
Pentagon officials traveled to Taipei in recent months, former
Defense Secretary William Perry and former chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili. They are said to have carried
the message to Taiwan's leaders: Taipei cannot count on U.S. cover
against Chinese attack if it declares independence and it should
start negotiations with China. The second point, in particular,
would appear to be a contravention of one of the "six
Assurances" that Washington gave Taipei in 1992 - that it would
not push the island to the negotiation table with China.
What the U.S. should be saying to Beijing is something quite
different. It should point out that the ability of the Taiwanese to
debate freely their relationship with the mainland, and to elect
leaders who agree with their positions, is after all a direct result
of the island's rapid democratization in recent years. The U.S.,
which makes support for democracy the hallmark of its foreign policy
is hardly in a position to tell the Taiwanese that they cannot elect
the politicians of their choice.
U.S. officials, and Mr. Clinton himself when he meets Mr. Jiang,
should reiterate the U.S. position that cross-Strait relations are
the business of the two sides, and that the U.S. will not tolerate
Chinese aggression against Taiwan. The Beijing regime could make a
better impression if it abandoned assertions of a "right"
to control Taiwan and accepted Taiwan's democratic process, making
its arguments for reunification in public forums and keeping its
threatening missiles sheathed.
It is of course unlikely that the Taiwanese will be persuaded to
any degree by China's message until China itself has made great
headway in modernizing it own political system. Privately,
individual Chinese concede that the Chinese government already
understand this. All the more reason for Mr. Clinton to underline
this reality before and durning his visit to Beijing.
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