Washington Post


Snubbing Taiwan

Thursday , August 17, 2000

CHEN SHUI-BIAN, the president of Taiwan, has just ended his 15-hour stopover in Southern California. Didn't notice that the newly elected leader of one of Asia's most vibrant democracies was on American soil? Well, you weren't supposed to. In deference to the government of Communist China--which considers Taiwan not a success story but a renegade province--the Clinton administration did everything it could to keep Mr. Chen under wraps while he paused en route to the Caribbean and Central America.

Since recognizing Beijing and de-recognizing Taipei more than two decades ago, the United States has observed an informal ban on high-level official visits from Taiwan. The Communist government is exceedingly prickly about any U.S.-Taiwan contact it considers "interference in China's internal affairs." Thus, it saw the mere granting of a U.S. transit visa to Mr. Chen as an affront, especially since Mr. Chen has, in the past, spoken more favorably of Taiwan independence than any previous president of the island.

To China, Mr. Chen's brief stopover was a potential repetition of the four-day visit to the United States in 1995 by Mr. Chen's predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, who wanted to stop in at his alma mater, Cornell University. That visit, permitted by the Clinton administration at the insistence of Congress, prompted China to recall its ambassador to the United States and stage military exercises near Taiwan. Apparently fearing another such tiff, the Clinton administration made it clear to the Chinese that Mr. Chen's transit visa was strictly for his "safety, convenience and comfort."

But China howled anew when it was announced that Mr. Chen planned to go to a private, unofficial reception in the Los Angeles home of a former aide to Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), to which Mr. Gejdenson and four other members of Congress were also invited. So, still deferring to China, the Clinton administration pressured the guest of honor not to attend. Mr. Chen, who has himself bent over backward not to provoke China since being elected last March, got the message and asked his hosts to call off the reception. Instead, he had dinner in his hotel, where Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), alone among the invitees to the canceled reception, dropped by to express support.

The United States should not go out of its way to inflame China on Taiwan. But a quick meet-and-greet between Mr. Chen and a few members of Congress hardly constituted anything a reasonable person would describe as reneging on the longstanding U.S. policy of recognizing Beijing as the sole government of China--or even as the equivalent of Mr. Lee's 1995 tour, which was itself actually innocuous. By bowing to China's bluster, the Clinton administration implied otherwise, setting a dangerous precedent. This was a pretty blunt example of Chinese interference in American internal affairs. Since when does any foreign government get a veto over where authorized foreign visitors--not to mention members of Congress--may go and whom they may see?