Parris Chang flew from Taiwan two weeks ago to open a Washington office, one he hopes he won't have to keep for too long. His new office illustrates how the Clinton Administration's status quo policies are failing to keep up with fast-moving events in Asia.
Chang represents Taiwan's political opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party, which argues that Taiwan should be considered an independent nation, separate from China, with its own diplomatic relations with the United States.
In recent elections, the DPP has been gaining on the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. The Kuomintang (which has ruled Taiwan for nearly half a century, ever since Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek dispatched his troops to the island as he was losing China's civil war) opposes independence and favors eventual reunification with China. Last year the DPP garnered about 40% of the vote and won the election for mayor of Taipei; over the next year, it could well force the KMT to share power in a coalition government.
Chang says the DPP's Washington office will be used "to tell the American people that Taiwan is not a province of China." In fact, he says, "Taiwan is already an independent state."
Those views, by a political party with considerable support in Taiwan, demonstrate why Taiwan is now a ticking time bomb for American policy. China has often threatened to invade Taiwan if it declares its independence. For decades, that seemed like a remote possibility, because the KMT ruled Taiwan as a one-party, authoritarian state. But the independence scenario is no longer so implausible. Taiwan is now a democracy, and its 21 million people aren't exactly thirsting for reunification with China.
Winston Lord did not attend Parris Chang's party for the opening of the DPP office. Lord, the Clinton Administration's assistant secretary of state for East Asia, serves as the keeper of the flame for the decades-old American policy toward Taiwan. That policy is to go along with the idea that Taiwan is part of China.
The U.S. policy was fixed in the earliest moments of Henry A. Kissinger's now-famous secret trip to Beijing in 1971. In a book published last year, one of Kissinger's top aides on that trip, John Holdridge, reveals what Kissinger left out of his own memoirs: that relinquishing the idea of an independent Taiwan was, essentially, the price of admission for the Richard Nixon Administration to begin to talk with China. Holdridge reports that at the outset of the first day's meeting in Beijing, Kissinger "said what I had written for him: no two Chinas; no one China, one Taiwan; no independent Taiwan."
Holdridge recounts Chinese Premier Chou En-lai's reaction: "Good. These talks may now proceed."
Lord, who was one of the few other Kissinger aides on that 1971 trip, is spearheading the Clinton Administration's efforts to hold the line on Taiwan policy. He is not alone. In Beijing, U.S. Ambassador to China J. Stapleton Roy has sent strongly worded cables warning the Clinton Administration against changes in American policy that would convey a degree of official recognition to Taiwan.
This month's opening of the DPP's office was merely the latest of several recent developments in Washington that have threatened to upset America's one-China policy. In Congress, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) announced two months ago that he would support admission of Taiwan into the United Nations. Just before the Senate and House left for their Easter recesses, both bodies began moving toward the adoption of measures calling upon the Clinton Administration to let Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui enter the United States to get an honorary degree and attend his college reunion at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Congress is responding to appeals from Taiwan's Kuomintang government, which has been trying to compete with the DPP by pushing for upgrades in American policy toward Taiwan. The Kuomintang is one of the world's richest parties, and it is throwing lots of money into the cause. Last year, a Taiwanese research group associated with the ruling party hired a Washington lobbying firm, Cassidy & Associates, for a three-year contract at a cool $1.5 million a year to lobby for Taiwan in Washington.
Money never hurts in Washington, and Taiwan's lobbying firm is all over town. Suddenly, members of Congress who probably don't even attend their own college reunions are becoming extremely fervent about making sure the president of Taiwan can have a drink with his Cornell classmates this June.