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Welcome, President Chen Shui-bian

Review & Outlook

Monday, April 30, 2001

Next month, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian will be visiting New York and Houston for some rest and relaxation on his way to visit Latin America. It's not an official visit -- Mr. Chen will technically be a private citizen "in transit," although House of Representatives Majority Whip Tom DeLay will serve as the president's "tour guide" in Houston. Nevertheless, expect a major temper tantrum from Beijing. With nerves frayed in the aftermath of the "spy plane" incident between the U.S. and China and memories of Lee Teng-hui's unofficial visit to Cornell in 1995 still fresh, this will be a litmus test of Chinese leaders' intentions toward Taiwan.

The trip is sensitive because the white lies that underpinned the tangled relationship between the U.S., China and Taiwan have come under considerable strain in recent years. In the 1970s and early '80s, Washington and Beijing signed three joint communiques pledging to work for a peaceful solution to the suspended civil war, and the U.S. agreed to recognize that both sides of the Taiwan Strait claim there is but one China.

However, in the meantime Taiwan has transformed itself from a Leninist dictatorship to a full-fledged democracy, and not everyone there is convinced of the virtues of "one China." And in the last few years, mainland China's commitment to a peaceful solution, which was always a convenient fiction, has collapsed -- a recent white paper threatened reunification by military force if Taipei delays progress "indefinitely." After President Lee's Cornell trip, the People's Liberation Army conducted missile "tests" just off Taiwan's busiest ports.

So how should the U.S. react to China's anger, and is it wise to allow Mr. Chen to venture out from the airport and meet with elected officials? The best answer is that the U.S. must remain true to its own values, and explain to China why it is necessary to accord Mr. Chen some basic courtesies, short of a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn. It's not politically sustainable for the American government to keep the elected leader of an island of over 20 million people confined to an airport lounge while his jet is being refueled. Beijing is sooner or later going to have to get used to the idea that a market of a billion people doesn't always trump democracy.

Since the U.S. and Taiwan do not have diplomatic relations, a formal reception for Mr. Chen is not going to happen anytime soon, and indeed it isn't desired by either side. Taiwan does have a considerable stake in the U.S. maintaining a stable relationship with Beijing, simply in order to help China pursue economic liberalization, and eventually political reform. But as a democracy and a thriving trading economy, Taiwan also needs to maintain a certain amount of diplomatic contact with the rest of the world. For China to seek to squeeze that space down to nothing is self-defeating.

Beijing seemingly doesn't understand that the game now is all about seducing Taiwan's population, not intimidating her leaders. Consider that China's 1996 missile tests, an attempt to intimidate Taiwanese voters into rejecting Lee Teng-hui's leadership, backfired badly. The public rallied behind Mr. Lee, and he swept to victory in the island's first democratic presidential election by a wider-than-expected margin. China apparently didn't learn the lesson. Before Taiwan's 2000 presidential election it again tried to influence events by warning that a victory for Chen Shui-bian might have grave consequences. And again, this provoked a contrarian reaction -- Mr. Chen won a surprise victory.

Beijing's insistence that diplomatic niceties be extended only to its envoys has a similar alienating effect. China's intimidation has managed to cut Taiwan's diplomatic ties down to a handful of mostly African and Latin American nations. Within Asia, former President Lee Teng-hui was forced to resort to vacation diplomacy, talking trade policy over rounds of golf with leaders like Lee Kuan Yew. This is a source of frustration for the Taiwanese people. They can sympathize with their president, since all Taiwanese have incredible difficulty obtaining visas to travel abroad, despite coming from a developed economy.

Beijing might want to consider that the pro-independence forces in Taiwan aren't, and never have been, in the ascendant. While Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party was still a rising opposition group, the fact that many of its most active members also supported declaring independence gave the impression that this viewpoint was gaining mainstream acceptance. Mr. Chen's victory actually showed that this isn't the case. He won largely on an anticorruption platform, and as the president of all Taiwanese he has had to temper his party's independence rhetoric to suit the majority of the population who favor the status quo.

Some in Beijing still believe that time is not on their side, that Taiwan is moving toward independence and must be reined in with threats. But others apparently have realized that the Taiwanese people see their economic interests as being increasingly aligned with the mainland, and will one day be amenable to reunification if China establishes the rule of law and starts to move down the same democratic road Taiwan traveled in the 1980s. The severity of the reaction from Beijing to Mr. Chen's U.S. trip will tell us much about which group is determining policy at the moment, and what the prospects are for a resumption of cross-Strait talks.