President Chen Shui-bian (
This was all very disappointing. Washington lost the opportunity to display flexibility in its Taiwan policy. Chen has shown that he was willing to limit his activities, not to make provocative statements, not to give critics of US China policy arsenals and not to give China an excuse to retaliate.
The purpose of Chen's first trip abroad as president was to visit Taiwan's diplomatic partners in Central America and Africa; he did not need to meet US government officials. Taiwan already has strong US congressional support, and Chen enjoys goodwill from government officials for his promotion of peace and cooperation. So far he has lived up to the promise of being a peace maker, not a trouble maker.
If Chen's first visit was intended as a test of his willingness to play by the rules, then he should get passing marks. He should also get the benefit of the doubt on future visits and be allowed a wider range of activities.
Chen has shown himself to be conciliatory to both the US and China. So far, neither Washington nor Beijing has responded to his goodwill gesture. In both countries, domestic politics have prevented a prompt reply.
The Clinton Administration, with only six months remaining, does not want a new crisis in its waning hours. Most contentious decisions are being postponed until a new administration takes office. The administration has, therefore, postponed its decision on selling warships with Aegis radar technology until next year. US Defense Secretary William Cohen has hinted that a decision on developing a missile defense system may be similarly postponed. The desire to avoid new turmoil in US-China relations may also have influenced the State Department's imposing, reportedly with the urging of the White House, tight limits on Chen's stay in LA.
The PRC's Taiwan policy is rumored to top the agenda of the Beijing leadership's Beidaihe meeting. Most observers had expected a reply to Chen's repeated peace overtures after the Beidaihe meeting, and many now expect it to come after a new administration takes office in Washington.
In the meantime, hints of a softer, more flexible line have been emanating from China. If so much is waiting for a new administration, what can we expect in terms of Taiwan policy?
Now that the Republicans' and Democrats' conventions have concluded and the presidential campaign is underway, the outlines of future policies seem visible. In short, do not expect dramatic or fundamental change in the US' Taiwan policy, regardless of whether George W. Bush or Al Gore becomes president. Despite slight differences in tone, the candidate's public statements and their party's platforms are remarkably alike when it comes to Taiwan.
Bush has made supportive comments regarding US policy toward Taiwan following China's threatening reaction to Lee Teng-hui's (
Both candidates and platforms are committed to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). Although the Republicans reaffirm the pledge to "help Taiwan defend itself," which is the US obligation under the TRA, they don't go further and commit the US to an active defense of Taiwan. A Bush administration may be more willing to sell more arms to Taiwan. Many believe, however, that Taiwan's difficulty in integrating new technology into its force structure is a bigger concern than the level and quality of US arms sales. Bush may be more likely to push forward with missile defense systems that could include Taiwan. But these measures alone will not promote the peaceful resolution of the cross-strait issue. Aggressive steps in these directions are likely to undermine, rather than enhance, Taiwan's security by provoking China.
Neither candidates, nor their parties, indicate their readiness to promote a higher profile relationship with Taiwan. The Republicans support Taiwan's entry into the WTO, as do the Democrats, and also support Taiwan's participation in the World Health Organization (which the Democrats do not). But the Republicans do not go so far as to support Taiwan's UN membership. The Republicans may have more friendly things to say about Taiwan, but this warmer rhetoric does not promise much beyond the status quo.
The basic parameters of US policy toward Taiwan have been fairly constant across several administrations. Many top US State Department officers began wrestling with these difficult issues long before Clinton took office, and they will remain in the State Department after his departure. They provide institutional memory that ensures continuity in US diplomacy, but their involvement in past decisions can stand in the way of opportunities offered by Chen's election and Taiwan's democratization.
The US State Department has tightly limited high level visits since the end of formal US-Taiwan diplomatic ties in 1979. It has also warned Taiwan's officials from meeting publicly with congressmen during visits in the US, although congressional delegations travel frequently to Taiwan for high level meetings. Although a number of congressmen formally complained to the White House for disapproving a meeting between them and Chen, only one actually defied the decision. Rohrabacher stood to gain the most from his handshake with Chen. Rohrabacher represents a district in California with a large number of overseas Taiwanese, so he will likely win some extra votes in the November election.
Congress may complain about the US' Taiwan policy, but it rarely does more than grumble. While Chen was in LA, Richard Bush, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, told him that the US' Taiwan policies would continue, regardless of who becomes the president. While it is good that the new American president will continue US support for Taiwan, adherence to the TRA and commitment to a peaceful resolution of cross-straits issues, it will be disappointing if future visits by Chen and other members of his administration occur under the current stringent restrictions. Chen should at least be able to meet with the media and members of the overseas Taiwanese communities. These are not "official" functions, and there is no formal policy that prohibits them. Only US State Department precedent and a reluctance to endure China's protests stand in the way of loosening these constraints. If the American government truly supports Taiwan's democratization, it should start by allowing a more appropriate reception of the man Taiwanese have elected as their leader.
Bruce J. Dickson is the director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University in Washington DC.
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