During former president Lee Teng-hui's (
In early 1995, the possibility of a visit to Cornell by Lee occupied considerable attention among those with responsibilities for Taiwan relations. The strong public objection by the State Department to the visit gained so much attention that whatever the results, it would be seen as a major struggle in Washington, which could result in a strong reaction from Beijing.
Lee was coming at a time when the Clinton administration had dumped the be-tough-with-China policy of its first year. Perhaps it was thought that strong opposition to the visit would demonstrate this new policy, and at the same time counter Taiwan's more assertive efforts on issues that were seen to be inimical to US interests. The objectives Lee sought, therefore, clashed with those of the administration.
Preparation for Lee's visit to Cornell also occupied much time at Taiwan's representative office in Washington -- and eventually generated into what became a frustrating relationship with the State Department. At the same time, the hiring by Taiwan of Cassidy Associates, a large PR and lobbying firm in Washington, received considerable amounts of media attention.
Both media attention and congressional action in support of the visit was indeed extraordinary. Strong support for the visit in editorials and articles in the major newspapers was persistently in favor of granting a visa to Lee. Even more telling was the 396 - 0 vote in the House, and a 97-1 vote in the Senate, which also made clear that it favored granting the visa. The administration, spearheaded by the State Department, continued to be unwilling to compromise,despite these pressures.
I had suggested that a visit to his alma mater could be an appropriate option for a visit by Lee, and if the Taiwan side was willing, the continuation of his journey to Central America after the Cornell visit would permit us to describe the visit as an elongated transit through the Americas. Some time later, there was some probing by some Taiwanese visitors on a compromise regarding the Lee visit, but nothing significant came of these efforts.
The State Department was convinced that Taiwan was deliberately opposing the Clinton administration in ways harmful to US interests. Some of these concerns were exaggerated or beyond the control of the Taiwan side, but at the same time were not completely baseless. At the same time the Taiwan side was trying to handle two conflicting objectives.
First, the diplomatic professionals were working to limit damage to the US-Taiwan relationship. Second, the Taiwanese-American community wanted to make this first visit by a president from Taiwan a major event.
In the end, the White House finally focused on the options the US president was being given -- damned if he granted the visa to Lee with the harm this might bring to the China?US relationship, or damned if he didn't, arousing widespread congressional and public outrage. Inevitably he took the former course. Those who had opposed that decision insisted Taiwan had "bought" the visa.