Taiwan Communiqué No. 94, December 2000

Change of guard at the White House

The disappointing Clinton years

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Taiwan to Gore and Bush: "Whoever wins, I hope he doesn't stab me in the back."

When Mr. Clinton was elected President in 1992, the Taiwanese-American community had high hopes for the new Democratic administration: Taiwan had just gone through its first open election for all seats in the Legislative Yuan (before that, most seats were held by old mainlanders elected in China in 1947). The island nation was just taking its first feeble steps on the road towards full democracy.

For sure, we thought, this new and young Democratic American president would significantly improve relations with Taiwan and bring about a fundamental shift in Taiwan's relations with the international community. Hadn't he emphasized human rights in his campaign, and hadn't he lambasted the Administration of president George Bush Sr. for "coddling" the Chinese dictators?

Even officials within the new Clinton administration had high hopes, and in the beginning of 1993 they initiated the Taiwan Policy Review, which was intended to significantly upgrade relations between the US and Taiwan.

However, by 1994 it became clear that we were in for a disappointment: led by the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, the Administration became increasingly mesmerized by the "trade with China" hot air balloon. The Taiwan Policy Review turned out to be a dud, and the State Department was telling China on every occasion that Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui would not be allowed to enter the US to attend a function at his Alma Mater Cornell University.

In fact, the Taiwan Policy Review meant a step backwards: the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act emphasizes that "Nothing in this Act may be construed as a basis for supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization", thus supporting Taiwan's membership in international organization without any pre-conditions.

However, in the 1994 Taiwan Policy Review, the Clinton Administration suddenly went on record as only supporting Taiwan's membership in international organizations, that do not require statehood, a distinction that was not made in the Taiwan Relations Act or in any other earlier policy statement.

While in 1995, after heavy pressure from Congress and the near-unanimous passage of two resolutions in the House and Senate, the Administration allowed President Lee to visit his Alma Mater Cornell, the half-hearted manner in which it was done was a signal to Beijing to increase the pressure on Taiwan. This it did: during the summer and fall of 1995, there were missile firings, military "exercises" and increasingly shrill warnings from Beijing against Taiwan. However, the Clinton Administration sat on its hands, and only vague mumblings came out of the State Department and White House.

It wasn't until early 1996, when a Chinese general uttered a threat to strike Los Angeles with a missile, that Mr. Clinton and his team woke up to the fact that China's threats were for real. In February 1996, when China was increasing its anti-Taiwan threats in the run-up to Taiwan's first democratic presidential elections, the US put two aircraft carrier battle groups into place.

The episode convinced China to tone down its warmongering, but behind the scenes the Communist leaders in Beijing turned up the pressure on Mr. Clinton to distance himself from the increasingly democratic Taiwan. They succeeded when Mr. Clinton, during his June 1998 trip to China, uttered his infamous "Three No's" thereby betraying freedom and democracy in Taiwan, and prompting the Congress to adopt near unanimous resolutions in the House (HR 301) and Senate (SR 107) condemning Mr. Clinton's statements and reaffirming American commitment to Taiwan.

Since the summer of 1998, several in the Administration, in particular Dr. Kurt Campbell at the DOD, and Dr. Richard Bush at the American Institute of Taiwan attempted to steer the Administration back on track by pushing for adequate weapon sales to the island, and by emphasizing that the future of Taiwan needs to be decided with the consent of the people in Taiwan. This latter principle was picked up by Mr. Clinton's use of "assent of the people of Taiwan" in speeches in early 2000.

If the Taiwanese and Taiwanese-Americans expected the Administration to change its policy after the victory of Chen Shui-bian in the March 2000 presidential elections, they were deeply disappointed: the overall attitude of the Administration is extremely stand-offish towards the new government, as exemplified by the shunning of President Chen and Vice-President Annette Lu during their transit stops in August and September 2000, and the restrictions imposed on them during those stops.

As we commented in our previous Taiwan Communiqué (no. 93): why is the democratically-elected leader of one of the most free and democratic nations in Asia shunned, and being treated like a pariah, while the leaders of a repressive, communist-led government in Beijing get a red carpet treatment in Washington?

The overall assessment of the Clinton years is thus that they were deeply disappointing to the newly-democratic Taiwan and to the Taiwanese-American community. The only rays of hope were a highly encouraging Congress, which showed strong bi-partisan support for Taiwan in critical situations, and the supportive positions taken by key individuals in the Administration, Messrs. Kurt Campbell and Richard Bush. However, these two were an exception rather than the rule in an Administration dominated by a White House and State Department pre-occupied with "engaging" communist China at the expense of democratic Taiwan.

A chance to remold Taiwan policy

When we write these lines, it is not clear yet who has won the American presidential elections. However, irrespective of the outcome, a new US administration does have an excellent opportunity to remold its policy towards Taiwan, redress the backward slide of the Clinton years, and set US policy firmly on a course that is consistent with the basic international principles of democracy and self-determination, as well as basic US values.

The first step should be to move away from Mr. Clinton's "strategic ambiguity" (whatever that meant) and confusing "One China" concepts towards strategic clarity: it needs to be made clear that any attempt by China to resolve its differences with Taiwan by force is not acceptable to the United States.

The second step is a renewed emphasis on freedom, democracy and self-determination: if the United States wishes these principles to gain wider acceptance in East Asia, it needs to make crystal clear that the Taiwanese people have the right to determine their own future without any outside pressure or interference from China.

The third step is normalization of relations with Taiwan. As we have emphasized earlier: a peaceful resolution of the Cross Strait conflict is only possible if the United States and the rest of the international community end the unfair and unjust isolation of the island, and accept it as a full member of the international community. As long as Taiwan is isolated, it is pushed with its back against the wall by China, and any negotiations would lack a level playing field.

A new administration also needs to move away from the pervasive paranoia about Taiwan independence: the country is a free and independent nation already. The only question is how it should be recognized internationally: under the outdated and anachronistic "Republic of China" name, which evokes bitter memories of the Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communists, or simply and straightforwardly as a new and democratic "Taiwan", which lives in peace with all its neighbors, including China.

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