Saturday, July 17, 1999

Taiwan talks independence; China roars

President Lee's separate nation
pronouncement really wasn't the
bombshell that Beijing and some
press accounts made it out to be

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin


PRESIDENT Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan set off a firestorm this week when he dropped a political formula known as the "one China" policy and declared that relations between his government and that of Communist China should be treated as "state-to-state" or "special nation-to-nation relations."

Beijing reacted with predictable outrage at what it considered a great leap forward to independence for Taiwan, which it claims is Chinese territory.

Some of the American press reported that Lee had set off on a radically new course in dealing with Beijing.

In reality, however, Lee was only nudging forward the "pragmatic diplomacy" he has conducted for more than five years; his remarks to a German radio station fit into a long-established pattern. Said a European specialist on Taiwan, "It is an incremental step in a much longer process, but still a highly significant step."

The objectives of Taiwan's pragmatic diplomacy have been threefold: to gain entry into international organizations such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization; to improve working relations with nations with which Taiwan lacks diplomatic ties; and to strengthen its hand in negotiations with Beijing.

In that context, the chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, Su Chi, explained, "This new definition reflects our disappointment over the Communists' 'one China' principle.

"We think the abnormal relationship across the straits is the result of the Chinese Communists refusing to face reality."

"We have shown our goodwill by calling ourselves a political entity under a 'one China' policy," he continued. "But the Chinese Communists have used this policy to squeeze us internationally. We feel there is no need to continue using the 'one China' term."

President Lee told Darryl Johnson, the de facto U.S. ambassador in Taipei, that he has long insisted that the Republic of China on Taiwan has been a sovereign government since 1912 and his new statements were intended to reflect political reality. The U.S. switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China in 1979 but maintains a quasi-embassy as the American Institute in Taiwan.

The Associated Press reported that a poll conducted by Taiwan's United Daily News last week showed 71 percent of the Taiwanese considered Taiwan a sovereign country while 13 percent disagreed and the rest had no opinion. Forty-nine percent agreed with Lee that relations with China should be a "state-to-state'' matter.

At first, the Clinton administration sought to stay out of the dispute by issuing boilerplate reaffirmation of its "one China" policy. But pronouncements from Beijing became increasingly belligerent, with the People's Liberation Army's newspaper asserting that the PLA was "extremely indignant" about Lee's stance and would not "sit idly by and watch even an inch of territory being cut off without taking action." Beijing also pointed to its ability to make neutron bombs.

That forced Washington to step into the fray. The State Department's spokesman, James Rubin, said, "We would consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means as a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States. That's about as strong a statement as one can make.

"There is no day in any year," Rubin concluded, "in which we wouldn't want China to know very clearly that is out view."

When China fired missiles toward Taiwan in 1996 in an effort to intimidate Taiwanese voters in a presidential election, the U.S. deployed two aircraft carriers in the waters east of Taiwan, and Beijing is aware that a similar deployment might occur if missiles flew again. A blockade intended to damage Taiwan's trade would be an act of war and might draw the same response, as would an attempted invasion across the Taiwan Strait.

After China's civil war ended in 1949, both the defeated Nationalists and the Communist regime in Beijing used the term "one China" but with different meanings. For Beijing, it has been a code word asserting that Taiwan belonged to China. For Taipei, it vaguely meant eventual unification with the mainland. Recent negotiations have made little progress because Beijing has insisted that Taipei acknowledge its sovereignty over Taiwan while Taipei has insisted on being treated as an equal.

During the 1980s, economic progress and moves toward democracy in Taiwan caused Taipei to mute its claim to rule China and began referring to itself as the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. The minister of foreign affairs in 1993, Frederick Chien, hinted of a new policy in a Honolulu speech, "It is the consensus of our people that we should assume a more active role in the international community."

In that activist policy, President Lee visited Cornell University in 1995 over the objections of the Clinton administration and Beijing, which saw the visit as recognition of Lee as a legitimate president, but with the overwhelming approval of Congress.

The following year, Lee told visiting U.S. senators, "We must be clear about one fact, namely that China is currently divided and ruled separately.'' He asserted, "The ROC has been a sovereign and independent nation since its founding in 1912," after the revolution led by Sun Yat Sen.

When the British colony of Hong Kong was reverted to China in 1997, there was speculation Taiwan would be next. Not so, said President Lee, Taiwan's first native-born president. "I must firmly state that the Republic of China is a complete sovereign state located on Taiwan," he told American and British reporters.

Both before and after, any hint that Taiwan would declare independence has triggered vehement warnings from Beijing that armed force would be employed to prevent it. China's response now, however, may be confined to words.

Economic sanctions would hurt China more than Taiwan and a military response would be filled with danger for China.

Thus, unless leaders in Beijing become desperate, their main weapon may be limited to talk.

Richard Halloran, a former Asia correspondent
for the New York Times, is a Hawaii-based writer.

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