New York Times

Taiwan's President Declines to Soften His New Doctrine

New York, Sunday, July 23, 1999

By Seth Faison

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Defying pressure to soften his stance, President Lee Teng-hui reaffirmed Thursday that Taiwan will only talk to China as a separate state, and he predicted that China would eventually accept Taiwan's new position. Lee called his new diplomatic tack "friendly and positive," and not provocative, as Beijing has termed it.

Lee's remarks appeared to be directed at Washington, as well as at Beijing, the two governments he most upset by dropping the bombshell on July 9 that from now on Taiwan will only negotiate with China in a "special state-to-state relationship."

A special envoy from the United States, Richard Bush, arrived in Taipei Thursday and is expected to urge Lee to find a way to reopen talks between Taiwan and China. Yet Lee's stance appears to have scuttled any chance for a visit by a senior Chinese official, Wang Daohan, that was scheduled for October.

Thursday morning, as Taiwan's call-in radio shows juggled competing opinions about the significance of President Clinton's remarks about Taiwan at a news conference on Wednesday, Lee issued a statement that signaled, in a gentle way, his unwillingness to back down. "I know it will not be easy for the Communist Party to accept this view right away," Lee told visiting legislators from the Philippines, according to a statement made public by his office. "But if they can remain cool and think this over, they will understand what I am saying."

Lee's remarks did not seem to allow any room for concessions to China, which has been angered by what it sees as a betrayal of the earlier framework for negotiations between Taipei and Beijing. When those talks began in 1993, Taipei and Beijing essentially agreed that they had separate governments but were part of the same Chinese country.

Now, as a senior aide to Lee tried to explain, Taiwan's government has changed its mind because it feels that the previous formula unfairly favored Beijing. Yet in talking about the issue, the aide had to weave his way through a semantical jungle that has grown up around the notion of "one China" -- a relic of a civil war that ended 50 years ago, when Taipei and Beijing both claimed to be the one legitimate government of all of China.

Washington deferred to this "one China" principle as it normalized relations with Beijing in the 1970s. In the 1972 Shanghai Communique, the United States acknowledged that Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait held that there was only one China, and that Taiwan was part of China. But after it switched diplomatic relations to Beijing in 1979, the United States also committed itself to Taiwan's defense, to prevent reunification by force.

The aide, Su Chi, chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, said Beijing's formula of "one China" exists in the present tense, whereas Taipei's only exists in the future. Taipei still supports the idea that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan will reunite some day, he argued, and only then will there be "one China."

"As a concept, it's all right," said Su in an interview. "Our problem is that there is no 'one China' right now. There's a divided China." As a result, Su insisted at one moment that Taiwan was making "a major step" in its new policy. A moment later, he countered that there is "no fundamental change," in Taiwan's position, since it has always sought reunification.

Like other Taiwan officials, Su would not say what seems obvious to any visitor to Taiwan: that the government is trying to distance itself from Beijing without going so far as to declare outright independence, a move that would risk military conflict. China has never renounced the use of force to achieve reunification.

"It is not that we are moving away, it is that the PRC's policies are so heavy-handed that they are forcing us away," he said, referring to the People's Republic of China.

In Beijing, a stream of anti-Lee invective continued. "Lee Teng-hui is doomed to failure," said a front-page commentary in the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily. "Those who follow him should understand they are heading into a blind alley from which there is no escape."

Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth arrived in Beijing Thursday to discuss the crisis, and his trip appeared to be timed to coincide with the special envoy's visit to Taipei. Roth is expected to echo Clinton's comments that Washington still supports a "one China" policy but would view any military action with grave concern.