Unequal Treatment For Taiwan

On 13 November 1998, the Washington Times published an Op-Ed piece by John R. Bolton, the senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. During the Bush Administration, he was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs:

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Unequal Treatment For Taiwan

Washington, November 13, 1998

dragon The recent simultaneous negotiations on opposite sides of the globe between Israel and the PLO on one hand, and Taiwan and mainland China on the other demonstrate a major inconsistency in American diplomacy. Because neither encounter resulted in new or definitive agreements, we can expect the inconsistency to persist for some time, to the discredit both of our diplomacy and credibility.

In the Israeli-PLO meeting, the president was deeply involved personally. Even before the Wye Plantation conference, he routinely met with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, including at the White House, and Hillary Clinton went so far as to declare her support for a Palestinian state.

In Asia, by contrast, Taiwan negotiates with the People's Republic of China unaided by any American presence or assistance. Lee Teng-hui, the democratically elected leader of Taiwan, is only rarely even permitted to enter the United States, and he cannot be received at the State Department, let alone the White House. It is the democratic government on Taiwan that endures the bulk of American pressure to accommodate its interlocutor, just as democratic Israel receives the bulk of the pressure in the Middle East context.

The president's disparate treatments of the PLO and Taiwan are difficult to compare, of course, given their widely different circumstances. But there is one place where the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of the administration's policies become apparent with particular force: the United Nations. The PLO, curiously known for 10 years in U.N. circles as "Palestine," engages in U.N. affairs almost as a full participant, with higher status than any other observer organization, and just below that of member states. By contrast, Taiwan will be completely on the outside, waging a campaign for U.N. representation that the administration scorns.

The U.N. Charter limits U.N. membership to "states," which are generally taken to be entities which control defined territories, have ascertainable populations and capital cities, and which exercise the normal functions of government in domestic and international affairs. By this standard, any reasonable person would have to concede that Taiwan - a democracy with a population larger than two-thirds of the U.N.'s present members, and one of the world's largest international traders - meets the Charter definition of "statehood."

By contrast, the PLO is largely playing at statehood, hoping through diplomatic charades to create "facts on the ground" in New York that will help make its status in the occupied territories look more serious. That the PLO is nonetheless a more consequential player in the United Nations than Taiwan speaks volumes. The palpable unfairness of denying U.N. representation to Taiwan reflects not only the petulant opposition of the Peoples Republic of China, but also the organization's detachment from international reality.

Equally detached from reality was the PLO's recent success in enhancing its status above that of other observer organizations. Both outcomes reflect the underlying Third World mentality that persists in the General Assembly. But even more important is what these outcomes say about current American foreign policy. Not only has the United States not supported Taiwan's legitimate efforts to secure U.N. representation, President Clinton, on his recent trip to the Mainland, wholly subscribed to Beijing's opposition to such representation.

By publicly agreeing to the PRC's position, the United States has signaled to every other U.N. member that they too should oppose Taiwan's efforts. Before the president's China trip, U.S. opposition was at least unstated, leaving it to Taipei and its friends to see what they could accomplish diplomatically. By stepping in unnecessarily and gratuitously in support of Beijing, the administration has enormously complicated Taiwan's task.

The administration's inability - or, more likely, unwillingness - to prevent the PLO's recent maneuver to gain enhanced observer status in the U.N. represents either policy error or incompetence. Although stating publicly that it opposed the PLO's effort, the administration failed to prevent it in a General Assembly vote. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's all-purpose explanation was that U.N. members were reflecting their displeasure with Israel's recalcitrance in the peace process, rather than rejecting our views. Some subordinates at the State Department may accept this explanation, but it cannot hide what was, in fact, a flaccid diplomatic performance by the United States.

Clinton administration policy on both the PLO and Taiwan reflect common failings in the president's approach to world affairs. First, the Administration has a hard time defining what is actually in America's best interests, which accounts for why its friend and allies are so often ill-treated. Since neither Taiwan nor Israel is likely to fare any better at the hands of any other international power, they have no choice but to accept the administration's approach.

Yet, both Taiwan and Israel are free and thriving, in sharp contrast to their neighbors, reflecting the kind of economic and political maturation the United States should welcome and encourage internationally. Nonetheless, others around the world will note that President Clinton is careless with countries that get too close.

Second, the administration defers to the strengths of opponents and rewards their intransigence, believing thereby that it can solve international problems. In Taiwan's case, it defers to the PRC, hoping without any apparent justification that acceding to Beijing's demands on U.N. representation for the ROC will help the United States on some other matter.

In the PLO's case, the administration seemed simply worn down by the PLO's insistence on enhancing its status, and mounted only a cursory and obviously ineffective diplomatic opposition. This too has not escaped notice internationally. An even larger lesson is that the disparity of treatment of the PLO and Taiwan ultimately reflects a presidential unwillingness to engage on really difficult international issues.

When he does engage, he tends to put pressure on America's friends to accommodate their adversaries, a curious inversion at best. Successes which fall into his lap, or which have tangible domestic political benefit get his attention, but not much else. That remains the unfortunate prospect for the rest of his presidency, a two-year-long period of jeopardy for America.

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