Taiwan deserves better
By Sam Gejdenson
Washington, August 21, 2000
When America's Founding Fathers created the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches more than 200 years ago, they gave our government a characteristic that would long distinguish the United States as the world's greatest democracy a system of checks and balances.
Members of Congress have long had the freedom to meet with world leaders and to travel to places the administration cannot. Republicans and Democrats alike have traveled to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro, and to other countries with whom the United States does not have formal relations, including North Korea, Iraq and Yugoslavia.
These meetings present vital opportunities to discuss issues of mutual concern that directly affect U.S. national interests. As ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee, I strongly believe members of Congress must continue to exercise this freedom and independence particularly if Congress is to effectively perform its oversight role with regard to U.S. foreign policy.
When learning of the newly elected president of Taiwan's one-day stopover in Los Angeles, I thought it was appropriate and important to invite members of the House International Relations Committee and other congressional leaders (many of whom were in town for the Democratic National Convention) to meet with President Chen Shui-Bian during his first visit to the United States as president.
Approximately 15 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle were scheduled to attend. Taiwan's new leadership, however, under pressure from Washington and Beijing, chose to make Mr. Chen "unavailable" for the meeting, which was then canceled. In the grand scheme of things, a canceled meeting is not an international crisis. However, it is particularly significant when one considers the enormous economic, security and political interests we share with both Taiwan and the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Given recent developments in Taiwan and relations across the straits, there could not be a more important time to find opportunities to talk to Taiwan's leaders about our common agenda. Taiwan's voters went to the polls in overwhelming numbers last May and elected Mr. Chen, marking the first party leadership change in Taiwan's history. Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party had long advocated that Taiwan declare independence from the mainland, and as a result, Mr. Chen was clearly the last choice of China's aging leadership.
Defying expectations, Mr. Chen immediately began to send concrete and meaningful signals to the PRC that his newly elected government was prepared to engage in a meaningful dialogue with China.
In these changing times, we in Congress must keep focused on U.S. policy towards Taiwan. We must find ways to reduce the threat of war between Taiwan and the PRC, and in particular, to counteract China's buildup of missiles pointed at Taiwan. The House of Representatives has already overwhelmingly approved the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which will strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan defense relationship, but this important bill remains bottled-up in the Senate.
We must also encourage the administration to find meaningful ways to involve Taiwan in international organizations, to the benefit of both Taiwan and the international community.
Regrettably, my colleagues and I were not afforded the opportunity to discuss any of these issues with Mr. Chen last Sunday. By demanding that Mr. Chen conduct no business in the United States during his "transit" stop in Los Angeles on his way to Central America, the United States continues to cling to its policy of more than 20 years, which prohibits high-ranking Taiwan leaders from making official visits to the United States.
Consequently, members are forced to choose whether to rely solely upon indirect assessments provided by the administration or to travel to Taiwan to obtain this information firsthand. This is a disservice not only to members of Congress, but also to the people we were elected to represent.
While members must continue to work with the administration, it is imperative that we maintain an informed and independent oversight role. Members of Congress traveling in Asia routinely visit Taipei for meetings with senior officials there. It is time we permit high-ranking Taiwanese officials to come to the United States to meet with members of Congress and relevant U.S. government representatives.
Given our "unofficial" relationship with Taiwan, I understand that Mr. Chen cannot be afforded all the trappings of an official state visit by a foreign head of state, but certainly we can find some way to afford Mr. Chen the respect he has earned. Meetings of this kind would send a strong message to China that the United States is committed to defending Taiwan and its democracy in deeds rather than words.
Taiwan's successful elections, which led to a peaceful transition of power, gave us our strongest signal yet that democracy in this nation is more than just a passing phase. In light of these impressive advances, it is high time that the United States treat our friends in Taiwan with the respect they deserve.
Sam Gejdenson is ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee.