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Taiwan Speaks Up

Review & Outlook

July 15, 1999

You could spend forever trying to figure out exactly why Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui decided to tell a German radio service that Taipei and Beijing should begin dealing with each other on a basis of "special state-to-state relations." We ourselves saw nothing much in last weekend's remarks that went beyond what officials in Taiwan have said before. More significantly, President Lee himself said yesterday that Taiwan's mainland policy "has not changed." In a meeting with America's top representative in Taiwan, Daryl Johnson, the president said he was merely trying to "clarify and specify" the relationship for positive reasons.

Even so, Mr. Lee had to know that his comments would cause a ruckus and that--in the context of recent strains in the U.S.-Sino relationship, for instance--China wouldn't be the only entity making angry noises. So why did he say it, and why now?

Mainstream supposition has been that the president revived the touchy theme of the island's status vis-a-vis the mainland for domestic political reasons. But there is more than that at stake for Taiwan here. Mr. Lee may have been more concerned with trying to properly position the United States. He knows full well that Washington's demonstrated attitude toward Taiwan, and specifically the credibility of a U.S. commitment to defend the principle of peaceful reunification, is the key to the island's future. Because that is how China sees things, too.

Consider what Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said this week in Beijing. Predictably, there was a statement about Taiwan taking "extremely dangerous steps," and a warning that China is prepared to use force to block independence for the island. But look at who the adversary turns out to be: The use of force, Ms. Zhang said, "is by no means directed against our compatriots in Taiwan. It is rather directed against the attempts by foreign forces to interfere in China's reunification hopes. . . ."

When you look at how the biggest of all "foreign forces" has been behaving in recent years, it would appear that China's expressed fear of U.S. interference is exaggerated. It is true that Beijing's relations with Washington have been strained--by NATO's accidental bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade and by Mr. Clinton's handling of the WTO issue. Yet if Taiwan is a sore spot today, that is not the Clinton Administration's fault. Anything Mr. Clinton did to irk Beijing early on he more than made up for last year, when he gave the greatest gift of all and became the first U.S. president to endorse China's unequivocal position of sovereignty over Taiwan.

Though Taiwan kept quiet about it at the time, the implications of this seismic shift have been preying on minds in Taipei ever since. The early stirrings of next year's presidential campaign on the island will have revived dread of another scenario like the campaign of 1996, when China tried to spook voters on Taiwan by test-firing missiles across the Strait. In a way it didn't work; people voted for President Lee anyway. But markets tanked, capital fled and the United States--though it sent some ships of the 7th Fleet to the area--did not skip a beat in its friendship dance with Beijing.

There's long been a view in Taipei that next year China might try something even more menacing militarily. We don't know if President Lee, who retires next year, anticipates another display of Chinese aggression ahead of the election for his successor. But he knows the subject of Taiwan's status will be an issue in the campaign, since nobody can win an election there without appealing to the majority sentiment in favor of, at the very least, state-like status. It's possible that by bringing it up at this time he was trying to get the fuss out of the way now rather than next year when Beijing could use campaign talk on that subject as a pretext for more saber rattling, or worse.

One thing seems certain: the weaker Beijing perceives Washington to be, the more likely Straits relations are to deteriorate. In this regard, there is one ray of hope in Washington's assertion this week that the only way for China and Taiwan to resolve their problems is through face to face talks. In basic terms, that is precisely what Taiwan wants. To sweeten Beijing's incentive to send its top Strait envoy, Wang Daohan, to Taipei later this year, Taiwan has also implied that it might meet China's key demand that any discussions must cover reunification. If Washington does nothing else useful in the current situation, it should keep high level cross-Strait talks at the top of its agenda.

The tragedy is that U.S. evenhandedness is no longer good enough. By tilting so far in Beijing's direction over the past years, in fact, the Clinton Administration has decreased the chances for fruitful discussions or even détente between Beijing and Taipei. Washington has awarded China superior status, an acknowledged statehood; but Taiwan gets no status at all. What kind of bargaining position is that supposed to be?

Who, on either side of the Strait, believes anything useful can come of talks between a sovereign state and a place on the map? Yet that is the box the Clinton Administration has put Taiwan into. Who can blame President Lee, then, for unilaterally declaring this isn't the way he sees things?

It may earn him bad-mouthing from Washington not unlike what was directed at another democratically elected leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, for not bowing to the wishes of Yasser Arafat. But what else is a leader to do when put into the kind of position that a weak and corrupt administration in Washington has assigned to Mr. Lee? He knows, as do the mainlanders, that the U.S., like it or not, remains a key player in this game.