On Monday 22 May 1995, the US government decided to grant President Lee Teng-hui permission to visit the United States to attend a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University in Ithaca, NY in June 1995. The move came after the US Congress, in the beginning of May, passed two Concurrent resolutions with the largest possible majority -- 97 to 1 in the Senate and 396 to 0 in the House. The resolutions urged the Clinton Administration to grant President Lee a visa for a "private visit."
The move is a significant breakthrough, because it is a signal to China that with regard to Taiwan it cannot continue to dictate its views on others in the international community. It is an example that should be followed by other nations around the world.
For Taiwan, Mr. Lee's visit to the United States thus represents an opening to the international community as an independent nation. It is essential that Mr. Lee takes this opportunity to present himself as the leader of a new, democratic and independent Taiwan, and drop the outdated "Republic of China" pretense, the anachronistic rival claim to sovereignty over China, which is causing so much headache with Peking.
It is also an opportunity for Mr. Lee to announce significant moves to further strengthen democracy in Taiwan. Two specific points need to be addressed: 1) the sheer total monopoly of the ruling Kuomintang on the three existing television stations, and 2) the rampant vote-buying by Kuomintang candidates. It is essential that these situations be redressed before the upcoming elections for the Legislative Yuan and Presidential elections, so as to provide a level political playing field for all on the island.
The White House arrived at the decision to grant Mr. Lee permission to visit Cornell after a long and arduous debate with Congress, in which the State Department strongly argued against approval, fearing repercussions in the relations with China. However, key members of both the House and Senate persisted, and at the beginning of March 1995 introduced two concurrent resolutions, urging the Clinton Administration to grant Mr. Lee a visa for a "private" visit to Cornell (see Taiwan Communiqué no. 65, p. 17). The text of the Resolution is as follows:
Expressing the sense of the Congress regarding a private visit by President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan to the United States.
Now, therefore, be it Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That it is the sense of the Congress that the President should promptly indicate that the United States will welcome a private visit by President Lee Teng-hui to his alma mater, Cornell University, and will welcome a transit stop by President Lee in Anchorage, Alaska, to attend the USA-ROC Economic Council Conference.
As indicated above, in the beginning of May, Congress passed the two Concurrent resolutions with the largest possible majority -- 97 to 1 in the Senate and 396 to 0 in the House. The move was also aided by a large number of editorials in US newspapers, urging the United States government to develop closer ties with a democratic Taiwan, and not give in to pressure from a repressive and dictatorial Communist China.
Another important factor was the introduction by Congressman Robert Torricelli of a resolution (HR. 1460) to modify the Taiwan Relations Act, which would have required the Administration to allow entry into the United States of "...elected leaders of the people of Taiwan or their elected representatives." If adopted by Congress, this resolution would have been binding, in contrast to the two abovementioned resolutions, which are non-binding "sense of Congress" resolutions. An interesting sidenote to Mr. Torricelli's resolution is that it would at this time not apply to President Lee Teng-hui, since he has not been elected (yet), but was appointed by the National Assembly in a closed process in March 1990. At that time, the National Assembly mainly consisted of old mainlanders elected in mainland China in 1947. The resolution would thus only apply to the Taiwan president elected in the upcoming March 1996 elections.
Behind the scenes, the campaign to let President Lee visit his alma mater was assisted to no small degree by the lobbying activities of a Washington lobbying firm, Cassidy & Associates, which had been retained by the Taiwan Research Institute for an amount of US$ 4.5 million over three years. The Research Institute is closely associated with President Lee, and is headed by Mr. Liu Tai-ying, who also happens to be the Treasurer of the KMT-party. Furthermore, the campaign for Mr. Lee's return to Cornell was also not hurt by the fact that a Taiwanese group called "Friends of Lee Teng-hui" donated US$ 2.5 million to Cornell for the establishment of a professorship in international studies.
In the end, though, it was the determination of several key senators, which brought the matter to a positive conclusion: senators Murkowski (R-Alaska), Paul Simon (D-Il) and Charles Robb (D-Virginia) jointly convinced Mr. Clinton around May 18th that going ahead with the visit would be in the best interest of the United States. In a press conference on May 22nd, the three senators termed the decision "a victory for democracy" and lauded the progress Taiwan had made towards democratic principles and political pluralism as a major reason for the breakthrough.
Senator Simon also termed the old US policy of politically isolating Taiwan "two decades old, stilted, rigid and unrealistic." He called for a new policy, "...not on the basis of power, not on the basis of numbers, but on the basis of human rights," indicating that US policies towards Taiwan should not be dictated by another country (i.e. China). With regard to the relations with the PRC, the senators predicted that there would be "a bump in the road", but that the long-term relations with China would not be affected.
The Chinese authorities in Peking did react angrily: Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen summoned US ambassador Stapleton Roy to the Foreign Ministry and warned him of "grave consequences for US-China relations" if the US went ahead with the plans. However, Mr. Stapleton Roy responded that the decision was final. In the days after the decision, the Chinese canceled a number of visits of Chinese officials to the United States, including an ongoing visit of a delegation led by its air force commander, and a planned visit by the Chinese minister of defense, Mr. Chi Haotien. However, there is little else the Chinese can do: the US holds two important trump cards: the upcoming renewal by President Clinton of Chinese Most Favored Nation status, and a say in Chinese accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Thus, the general consensus is that China will display a lot of bluff and bluster on the issue, but there is little the Chinese can do to change matters around. One editorial in an American newspaper (Fort Worth Star Telegram, 24 May 1995) aptly summarized it as follows: "Let China fume." Indeed, China did display a peculiar double standard on the issue, when it canceled visits of its officials to the United States, but at the same time went ahead with a meeting of Mr. Tang Shubei, vice-chairman of its Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) with his Taiwanese counterpart of the quasi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) in Taipei. In fact, the two men agreed to a a high-level meeting of their superiors in Peking in July.
Taiwan Communique comment:
The visit of Mr. Lee will have long-term significance if the actors on all sides are able to move beyond the dug-in positions, and let a new, fresh wind blow through the smoky backrooms where policy towards Taiwan has been held hostage. Taiwan in its present-day form is totally different from the Kuomintang's "Republic of China" which was kicked out of the United Nations in 1971 or 1978, when the US shifted its diplomatic relations from Chiang Kai-shek's heirs to the rulers in Peking. In spite of the Kuomintang's ongoing shadow plays, this Taiwan is democratic and de-facto independent, and can present itself to the international community as a new nation.
As a first step, it is thus essential that the government in Taipei itself move progressively towards such a new status. It will find, that if it does that, it will meet with increasing recognition internationally.
Secondly, for the international community, and in particular the United States and Western Europe, it is time to evolve towards a new policy towards Taiwan, which recognizes the new reality, and rewards the Taiwanese people for their peaceful transition towards a democratic system by accepting the island as a full and equal player in the international arena. Taiwan's international relations should not be held hostage by a China that is unpredictable, repressive, and expansionistic.
Thirdly, for China itself it would be in its own benefit if it would discard the shackles of the Chinese Civil War, and recognize that there is a new Taiwan, which wishes to be a friendly neighbor named "Taiwan" and not an old rival named "Republic of China."
Some observers argue that relations with China are all-important, and that the US and other nations should not endanger these fragile ties by moving closer to Taiwan. The counter-argument is that China will have to learn to be a responsible player and live by the rules, just like other civilized nations. Giving in to its whims will not help that process. Standing up to China, and help it understand that peaceful coexistence with Taiwan as two friendly nations, is in the best interest of itself and of stability in the region.
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