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NEW ERA TAIWAN

U.S. Officials Try to Keep Tempers Cool in 'Especially Difficult Time'

Diplomacy: China's 'wait-and-see' response to island's vote is called a good sign. Washington stresses there will be no shift in policy.

March 19, 2000|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the wake of Taiwan's dramatic presidential election, Asia specialists believe that the United States faces one overriding challenge: keeping all sides cool during the uncertain postelection period, as a new, untested leader assumes power on the island.

"What's needed is a little bit of time for people to calm down, breathe normally and think through in an unemotional manner where things are going and the stakes that are involved," said Robert L. Suettinger, a senior White House advisor on China during President Clinton's first term. "The Chinese [preelection] rhetoric really roiled the situation."

Those who track cross-strait relations were encouraged Saturday by the initial "wait-and-see" reaction from Beijing to Chen Shui-bian's victory.

"The real question mark in all this is China, and if they try to overplay their hand by what they say and do," said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "Their restrained first reaction is a good sign."

But for China's Communist leadership, which wants to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, for a fledgling Taiwanese government that must establish its credibility and for American lawmakers eager to protect a longtime U.S. ally from Beijing's bullying, any ill-considered action could provoke excessive, hard-to-contain responses, these analysts fear.

Said a senior Clinton administration official: "It's an especially difficult time."

A series of provocative Chinese moves during the preelection period--including a veiled threat to invade the island if the Taiwan electorate produced the "wrong" result--heightened tensions during the run-up to Saturday's election. There was investor panic in Taiwan and angry responses from Capitol Hill, and the State Department summoned China's ambassador to the United States, Li Zhao-xing, to protest Beijing's statements and to stress the need for calmer rhetoric.

Senior U.S. policymakers say they are consciously trying to keep tempers and rhetoric cool, counseling patience on both sides and stressing that there will be no change in the long-standing American policy toward the region that supports the eventual peaceful reunification of Taiwan with China through political dialogue.

"We're talking like mad to one side and then the other to convince them where their interests really lie--namely in working out their problems face to face in dialogue," one senior U.S. official said.

A series of factors complicates their task, including:

* Beijing has demonstrated a particular inability to understand the negative impact of incendiary, threatening rhetoric toward Taiwan and how badly it plays into the politics of democracy, be it in Taiwan or the United States. Despite Saturday's initially muted response from China to the events in Taiwan, concern remains that Beijing could quickly fall back to its earlier, bullying tactics.

"There's going to be a lot of popular pressure on the Chinese government to not lose face over this," said Jay Carter, a China historian at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "Whatever is said privately, Beijing is likely to take a very hard line publicly."

Others expressed similar concerns.

"My worry is that Chen may take fairly clear steps to open a line of communication with Beijing and say the right things but that Beijing won't be in receive mode," Suettinger said. "I worry they'll react with something like, 'We don't care what he says, we know what he really thinks.' "

* In the United States, Taiwan's elections have drawn an unusually high level of interest, and any provocation by Beijing would quickly spill into the heat of the presidential election campaign. There also are crucial initiatives relating to Taiwan and China before Congress that could easily erupt into political firestorms if conditions in the region deteriorate.

The Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, already passed by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, would boost the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship, while the crucial debate about China's entry into the World Trade Organization is just now beginning.

At the same time, the administration is mulling over a shopping list of military equipment that Taiwan wants to buy from the United States, including Aegis frigates equipped with sophisticated antimissile radar. Debate over that list could quickly fuel emotion in the U.S. and the region.

Just last week, on the eve of Taiwan's election, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) unleashed a withering attack on the Clinton administration's China policy, accusing the president of following a policy of appeasement toward Beijing in much the same way British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave in to Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler. Students of the Sino-American relationship believe any U.S. attempt to mollify Beijing in the wake of Saturday's results could trigger similar responses and only raise the political temperature.

* In Taiwan itself, there are those who seem more concerned about what outgoing President Lee Teng-hui might do in his final weeks than about any unexpected action on the part of the newly elected Chen. Lee's comments last year proposing a "state-to-state" formula for China-Taiwan relations triggered outrage in Beijing and heightened tensions in the region. Some fear Lee might add to those tensions as a parting shot.

"Lee Teng-hui can use his influence and exercise his power until May 20 [Inauguration Day], and it cannot be totally ruled out that he would create new troubles," said Yang Jiemian, director of the department of American studies at the Shanghai Institute for Strategic Studies and one of China's leading experts on the United States and Taiwan.

Still, U.S. analysts believe the greater dangers for overreaction lie in Beijing and Washington, not in Taiwan.

"It's a volatile time," Suettinger said. "There's an awful lot of unpredictability; a lot of things that could go wrong."

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