Memories of Lee's American visit

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎  / 

Thu, Oct 13, 2005 - Page 8

During former president Lee Teng-hui's (李登輝) current visit to the US, he will be speaking in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. The US State Department has publicly said that he is a private citizen and therefore welcome to visit the US. He is welcome to speak about anything he wants but if the government believes the rhetoric is provocative, it may clarify Washington's policy. Of course there is a considerable difference officially between a sitting president and a private citizen. Nonetheless, a review from my perspective of Lee's first visit to Cornell as president some years ago may be interesting.

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.

granting visas

Credit should be given to the Cassidy effort, as there is no doubt it had contributed to achieving the final result. But it is too often overstated. The principle involved had much to do with it. At a time when we were granting visas to the "terrorist" Gerry Adams of the Irish Republican Army, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, it would have been almost impossible not to permit democratically elected Lee a visit. How many members of Congress would vote to deny Lee a visa? How many editorials would support denial?

It seemed clear to me that when all was said and done, the White House was not pleased with the State Department over the way the Lee visit had played out. This may have had consequences on where policy decisions on China and Taiwan would be made in the future. Beijing leaders were not the only ones who lost face over the decision.

Lee and his entourage arrived at Los Angeles airport on June 7 at the VIP terminal. There were no media present, no welcoming party other than the staff of Taiwan's representative office in Los Angeles; Taiwan's official representative to the US and myself with our wives, and a representative from both the city and state governments. The State Department assigned several diplomatic security officers for the entire visit.

The motorcade with the city police escort took us to a hotel in the nearby suburbs of Los Angeles. Much to everyone's surprise, a small group of well wishers from the Taiwanese community, Republic of China flags and all, were waiting there. Lee, now much more a politician than the academic of a few years earlier, dove into the crowd with glee. The security people, both theirs and ours, blanched and then dived in to protect him.

Having met so many of these people in my visits to the many Chinese and Taiwanese organizations around the country, I knew the welcomers had not been there because the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) had encouraged them. On the contrary, they were organizations over which TECRO would have had little influence.

Aside from that initial welcome, Lee met discreetly with leaders of the Chinese-American organizations of the Los Angeles area in the hotel. Then on the following morning, we left for Syracuse, New York.

The airport there was not accustomed to handling 747 aircraft, and I was told the State Department security people had demanded the plane park some distance from the small terminal to avoid the small crowd that was gathering. The mayor of Syracuse was outraged and overruled them.

As we taxied toward the parking place, it was clear from our windows that a small welcoming group with flags were waiting -- and so were senators Jesse Helms, Frank Murkowski, and Alphonse D'Amato, who had flown up from Washington to meet him. The welcomers there were from the same type of organizations I had seen in Los Angeles. After all the welcoming speeches were finished, Cornell University president Frank Rhodes led the Lee entourage to the cars for the drive to Cornell.

The entourage went to a large tent on campus for the welcoming speeches. Cornell students from Taiwan were lined up at the entrance to the tent, excitedly waving flags and placards, to meet their president.

One I did recognize -- a non-student and a Taiwan-independence advocate who had used his radio station in Taipei to incite cabdrivers in the city to disrupt traffic as a protest against the Lee government. He was sought by the police there, had bolted to the US, and somehow was in the welcoming line with a large placard, cheering as loudly as any of the students in welcoming Lee.

The visit was launched and the entourage began two full days of meetings and speeches.


One issue that was causing the State Department much anxiety was a scheduled press conference that traditionally followed the annual Olin lecture being given by Lee. The Taiwanese side would have liked to have it, and the media -- both Taiwanese and US -- were expecting it. Cornell was insisting on it. The State Department, however, insisted it had to be scratched. I talked with Lee's principal adviser who then agreed to ask Cornell to cancel it. It avoided what could have been an ugly public disagreement.

The Olin lecture was the high point of the visit. Lee spoke in English, with excellent timing and pronunciation. For those of us witnessing the speech, with all the drama that had preceded it, the moment was memorable. But the speech became an event that the State Department and then secretary of state Warren Christopher, in his memoirs, considered a pivotal issue. The secretary's view was doubtless based on the analysis he received from his department at that time, but it is a view that continues to be held by many.

When the speech was concluded, however, I called in my view to the State Department that it had not been a "political" speech. I was told that the State Department had read it and on the contrary judged it to be very "political." A few minutes later, however, I received a call back telling me their assessment would be retracted. Higher authority apparently did not find the speech "political." I thought that that would put to rest the speech and its impact. To my surprise though, it seems the view that the speech was a major irritant of the visit has persisted.

After several meetings and speeches, and a walk around the campus the next day, we went back to Syracuse and departed for Anchorage. The next morning my wife and I went on a private tour of Anchorage with Lee and his wife. From his arrival in Los Angeles to the return departure from Syracuse, we had used English (Lee had wanted to practice). Thereafter, always in Mandarin. Though aware of the problems this trip might bring, as usual he was looking far ahead of that. The world had been reminded of Taiwan -- and that was Lee's ultimate purpose.

missile exercise

The impact of earlier important constitutional changes in Taiwan (that is, the direct election of the president), the trip and the missile crisis carried over into 1996. The missile exercise conducted by China in 1995 -- generated by the direct election of the Legislative Yuan, and the forthcoming direct election of the president, did not get as much attention. In the US, most experts still place the blame for the second missile crisis almost entirely on the trip to Cornell. It meshed nicely with the charge that the trip was "bought." Placing more blame on the beginning of direct elections was difficult as we are supposed to support democracy.

Others may have different views on this trip to Cornell. Mine is that the peaceful revolution to democracy that took place in Taiwan under Lee's leadership in the last century begged for a change in how we manage our relations with Taiwan. Changes have begun in this century, but where Taiwan goes in the time ahead matters, for us and for East Asia. Still more needs to be done.

Lee will make some speeches during his present visit, which reminds me of an another incident. In a dinner with the Lees at their home in the early 1990s, we had talked about many things including the 228 Incident. He talked with emotion about the subject, but after a few minutes he stopped. He said he had much more in his heart, but had to remember that he was still the president.

Four years later, his speech at Cornell was titled "Always in My Heart." Now, as a free, private citizen again visiting the US, it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.