New York Times

Taiwan President Implies His Island Is Sovereign State

New York, Sunday, July 13, 1999

By Seth Faison

BEIJING -- Taiwan has abandoned the political formula that has long helped avert war with China, declaring Monday that it will no longer adhere to the principle that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are two parts of the same country. Beijing's response was immediate, and furious.

The shift, surprising and sudden, risks badly souring Taiwan's relations with China and also could worsen the strains in the already troubled ties between China and the United States.

Led by President Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's government is essentially taking a step away from the conceptual umbrella of inevitable reunification between China and Taiwan that has been a basic condition of all talks between them.

For decades, the deliberate ambiguity known as the "one China" policy allowed Beijing and Taipei to maintain the fiction that each was the legitimate ruler of the other.

Since President Nixon's visit to China in 1972, it has also been a cornerstone of U.S.-China relations, allowing Washington to support Taiwan but recognize Beijing as the capital of China.

In the last decade, Beijing has watched warily as the arrival of democracy on Taiwan led to more open debate, with an opposition party that put Taiwan independence in its platform. Beijing warned all along that it would use force if Taiwan's government declared independence.

Now, by dropping the one-China formula, Lee -- Taiwan's first native-born president -- is moving a critical step in the direction of asserting Taiwan's independent status, while stopping short of an actual declaration.

In an interview over the weekend on German radio, Lee, an unpredictable politician whose provocative steps in 1996 brought Taiwan close to armed conflict with China and then delivered him a resounding victory in a presidential election, said that from now on, Taiwan would treat contacts with China as "state-to-state" relations. "Under such special nation-to-nation relations," he said, "there is no longer any need to declare Taiwanese independence."

Lee's sudden turnaround on this diplomatically critical terminology provoked muted response in Taiwan at first, as other politicians debated what he meant while Lee himself maintained a conspicuous silence.

But Monday another senior Taiwanese official came forward to clarify what Lee's remarks meant: that Taiwan would scrap the one-China formula that has been used as a base for all discussions with the mainland.

"This new definition reflects our disappointment over the Communists' 'one-China' principle," said the official, Su Chi, chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. "We think the current abnormal relationship across the straits is the result of the Chinese Communists refusing to face reality."

The shift outraged officials in Beijing, who accused Lee of taking "an extremely dangerous step." "We sternly warn Lee Teng-hui and the Taiwan authorities not to underestimate the Chinese government's firm determination to uphold national sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity," said Zhu Bangzao, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "Don't underestimate the courage and force of the Chinese people to oppose separatism and Taiwan independence."

There was no public indication for what prompted Lee's sudden change, though the timing suggested an obvious possibility: local politics. A presidential campaign is getting underway in Taiwan, and the stance of Lee's Nationalist Party toward the mainland will be a hot topic.

On Saturday, Taiwan's main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, nominated former Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian as its candidate to succeed Lee, whose term expires next year. Nationalist Party supporters are expected to be split between Vice President Lien Chan, supported by Lee, and a popular former official, James Soong, who may defect to another party.

Although polls in Taiwan reflect popular support for better ties with the mainland, the Nationalist Party is eager to woo away some supporters from the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors a formal declaration of independence from China.

That single word, independence, lies at the crux of the bickering between Taiwan and China. Although Taiwan and China have acted separately and independently of each other for 50 years, governments on each side have until now accepted the premise that they are both parts of the same country -- that Taiwan is a province of China.

Meanwhile, other countries, forced to choose whether to recognize Beijing or Taipei as the legitimate representative of China, have by now nearly all chosen Beijing, leaving Taiwan diplomatically isolated.

Washington switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. State Department spokesman James Foley said Monday that the American policy of "one China" remained unchanged. "The U.S. position on Taiwan's future is also clear," Foley said. "We believe that it is a matter for the Chinese people, on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, to resolve. The United States has an abiding interest and concern that any such resolution be a peaceful one."

Later, a State Department official said the administration was "not consulted in advance" on Lee's statement. The official said the administration was still trying to find out from Taiwan officials what Lee had said in his radio interview and "what it means." Beijing's view is that Taiwan is temporarily under the administration of another, while it awaits the forces of history to push it to reunification with the mainland.

As a result, Beijing often seems obsessed with any hint that Taiwan will declare itself independent in name, as well as in reality. It may sound bizarre to an outsider, but one of the meanest insults a Chinese official can use against Lee is that he is a "splitist," or someone who aims to split Taiwan away from China.

In recent years, while official bickering between China and Taiwan has veered between a high pitch and low pitch, the flow of money, people and culture across the Taiwan straits has boomed. Taiwanese television programs are now regularly broadcast in the mainland, since they are often of higher quality. Taiwanese businessmen have invested more than $30 billion in mainland China, and hundreds of thousands of them now live here.

But popular indifference to the oratorical fighting between Beijing and Taipei has not diluted the criticism that Beijing continues to spew about Lee. Monday's excoriations in Beijing were the harshest since 1996, when China was infuriated by Lee's political maneuvering that led to a visit to the United States, the first by a Taiwan president since Washington dropped diplomatic recognition two decades ago.

China launched missiles into the ocean near Taiwan in an attempt to intimidate voters just before the presidential election in Taiwan. Instead, the panic gave Lee a decisive victory.

Yet Beijing has continued to denounce Lee, depicted in China's media as a dishonest man who proclaims his interest in reunification while he is really inching back toward an all-out declaration of independence. "Lee's flagrant redefinition of cross-straits relations as 'state-to-state' relations exposed his political malice," said a spokesman for the Communist Party's Taiwan Work Office, quoted in Beijing newspapers Monday. "Lee has been deceiving Taiwanese compatriots and misleading people internationally."

China's top negotiator with Taiwan, Wang Daohan, said he was shocked by Lee's remarks. Taiwan's new position, Wang suggested, could make it impossible to continue the series of meetings between representatives of Taipei and Beijing that have been underway off-and-on since 1993. "This formulation means there is no basis for contact, exchange or communication," said Wang in a dispatch by the New China News Agency.

Wang is scheduled to visit Taiwan in October; he would be the most senior mainland official to do so since the Nationalist Party retreated to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Communist Party.

Tang Shubei, executive vice-president of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait chimed in, too. He called Lee's remarks "a crude sabotage of the cross-straits relations." "Statesmen should keep their word, and their failure to keep their promise will only cause disaster to the people of Taiwan," Tang said, the New China News Agency reported.

Though officials in Beijing chose vitriol, they might have pointed to the fine print of Taiwan's own Unification Guidelines, adopted in 1991 to identify steps toward unification between Taiwan and China. It calls for defining Taiwan's relations with China as those between 'equal political entities,' rather than 'state-to-state.'

Yesterday's terminology, apparently. The Taiwan official, Su, argued that the old formula was being exploited by Beijing to undermine the legitimacy of the Nationalist Party. "We have shown our goodwill by calling ourselves a political entity under a one-China policy," Su said. "But the Chinese Communists have used this policy to squeeze us internationally. We feel there is no need to continue using the one-China term."