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Taiwan's New Foreign Minister Urges U.S. to Press China to Slow Missiles

April 17, 2000


TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Taiwan's incoming foreign minister says the U.S. should be more assertive in its relations with Beijing and pressure China to slow its deployment of missiles that can strike Taiwan.

"The U.S. has to tell China straightforwardly, 'You can't use force to change the status quo," " said Hung-mao Tien. "They respect power." Mr. Tien made his remarks in an interview earlier this month before he agreed Friday to accept the job as foreign minister in Taiwan's new administration.

Mr. Tien, 61 years old, begins his new job in one of the worst periods of tension between China and Taiwan since the two were divided by civil war in 1949. Beijing worries that Taiwan President-elect Chen Shui-bian, whose victory in March 18 elections ended 55 years of Nationalist Party rule, wants to move away from China's goal of unifying the two territories. China this month called the island's Vice President-elect Annette Lu "scum" after she described the mainland and Taiwan as distant relatives.

Change Won't Come Overnight

Yet Mr. Tien, who currently is a policy adviser to departing President Lee Teng-hui and isn't a member of Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, says it is Taipei that wants to preserve the status quo with China.

He blames an impatient Beijing for rocking the boat. "We want to maintain the status quo and China wants to change that for reunification," he said. "You can not expect Chen Shui-bian to turn into a pro-unification politician overnight."

Most leaders of Mr. Chen's party oppose unification of the two sides.

Mr. Tien said China aims to pressure Taipei to accept a precondition for talks that could imply mainland sovereignty over Taiwan. Beijing has called for Mr. Chen to embrace a "one China principle" in his May 20 inaugural address and hasn't ruled out force to bring Taiwan under its control.

"The game China is playing is to put Taiwan into a cage," Mr. Tien said. "Once you are put in the cage, you can't get out," and the negotiations become "a question of how big is the cage." If China insists on attaching unacceptable preconditions for new talks, Mr. Tien said, "in the end, there could be no talks."

Critical of Washington's Stance

Whether China attempts to resolve the issue by military force will depend on how it perceives its own strength, Mr. Tien maintained, contending that "it will take a lot more than what they have now." Still, Mr. Tien suggested that if China's Communist government doesn't collapse at some point, Beijing will be "incredibly" powerful on the world stage, thanks in part to large foreign-capital inflows that have helped its development.

The new foreign minister said one of his chief concerns is China's increased deployment of ballistic missiles capable of hitting Taiwan. Military analysts put that number at 200-300. Mr. Tien estimated that China is currently deploying 50 missiles a year. "The U.S. should put pressure on China to slow the missile deployment," he said. President Clinton needs to "play more [of a] hardball game" and change a perception that he can be pushed around by Beijing, Mr. Tien said.

Mr. Tien, who has worked as a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, expressed frustration that Washington's policy toward Taipei doesn't reflect changes in Taiwanese views about relations with China after almost 40 years of martial law ended here in 1987. In particular, he said that circumstances have changed since the U.S. and China signed the 1972 Shanghai Communique, which stated: "The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China."

Offering Too Much Too Soon?

Mr. Tien said Taiwan's new president is likely to try to maintain a strong military posture. "He'll be a man pushing for a strong defense," said Mr. Tien. "He's a realist. He knows that with China you have to be strong."

The new minister hinted, however, that Mr. Chen may already have offered too many conciliatory gestures to China since his election, including expressing his desire to quickly end a formal ban on direct shipping links with the mainland. "He is so eager to eliminate his image as a pro-independence politician," Mr. Tien said of Mr. Chen. "Did he offer too much, too early? We have to evaluate that."

"From a tactical point of view, unilateral conciliatory gestures can be taken as a sign of weakness," Mr. Tien argued.