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THE WORLD : CHINA : Is U.S. Playing the Taiwan Card by Granting Its President a Visa?

June 04, 1995|Xiao-huang Yin and Tsung Chi | Xiao-huang Yin, an assistant professor at Occidental College, is an associate of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard. Tsung Chi, also an assistant professor at the college, is a frequent contributor to Chinese-American newspapers on China and Taiwan

The U.S.-China relationship has bumped into another rock. This time, the trouble is not copyright laws, arms sales, even human rights. It is Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's planned visit to the United States this week. The White House insists that granting Lee a visa does not represent a shift from its longstanding one-China policy, because his trip is "private"--he will be attending an alumni event at Cornell University. But the very fact that Lee is the first Taiwan leader to visit since Washington established diplomatic relations with Beijing conveys a degree of official recognition to the de facto island state. For this reason, Beijing has accused the Administration of perfidy and warned that Washington will "pay the price."

Why should the White House care so much about Taiwan that it would risk unraveling U.S.-China relations? The Administration claims that Lee is welcome because America "treasures the rights of freedom of travel and believe others should enjoy these privileges as well." But it would be naive to believe that the visa decision is truly based on moral considerations. For one thing, morality rarely motivates the United States in international affairs. Rather, it is self-interest, whether enlightened or ill-calculated, that determines its agenda.

Strong pressure from Congress has undoubtedly played an important role in bringing Lee to the United States. The House voted 396-0, the Senate 97-1, for resolutions urging the Administration to let the Taiwan leader in. Given that congressional Republicans want to slash favored Democratic programs and foreign aid, which would seriously erode Washington's global influence, the Administration may feel it has to accommodate Congress on the Taiwan issue to win support on more urgent budget proposals.

More significant, the Taiwan leader's visit indicates that Washington has begun to adjust its overall China policy to the emerging post-Deng era. While there is a long list of items on the China agenda, from Beijing's missile exports to its assertiveness in the South China Sea and persecution of political dissidents, the United States has failed to achieve much progress through normal dialogues with Chinese leaders. Accordingly, the Administration may feel that it has to find a new solution to old problems.

Bringing Taiwan into the game appears a more effective way to put pressure on China. Unlike the ambiguity and contradiction inherent in a policy such as economic sanctions, upgrading relations with Taiwan would not only avoid damaging U.S. business interests; it would also promote American exports to Taiwan, one of America's largest trading partners. Reports indicate that the Taiwan leader may bring with him a long shopping list that includes such items as Alaska oil and nuclear-power stations.

The Lee visit may have another positive result--it could open up additional channels to influence post-Deng Chinese politics. The fact that Taiwan is viewed by Beijing as a renegade province makes Lee's trip highly symbolic. Currently, the power struggle in China to succeed Deng Xiaoping, on display in the thinly veiled "war on corruption" at the top level, has entered a volatile stage. Washington may want to use the Taiwan leader's visit to send a signal: The United States may choose to deal with regional bosses, rather than the central leadership, if the situation in China after Deng's death gets out of control. Even the timing of Lee's visa is significant: Since his trip coincides with the sixth anniversary of the Tian An Men crackdown, Lee, who is credited with promoting democracy in Taiwan, can be seen as an expression of Washington's continuing criticism of Beijing's political repression.

Lee's visit certainly has hit a sensitive nerve in China. Beijing has fired a barrage of hostile pronouncements, canceled high-level official trips to the United States and threatened further retaliations. The shrillness of the response should not be surprising: Few Chinese leaders want to be perceived as weak on an issue involving China's sovereignty. In a country that has a long history of humiliation at the hands of Western powers, nationalism on sovereignty still remains an effective means to unite the 1.2 billion Chinese and hold together the crumbling communist empire. The reunification of Taiwan is one of the few issues on which post-Deng Chinese leaders, hard-liners and liberal, may agree.

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