Republicans May Hurt Taiwan By Trying To Do It Favors

As if a threatened trade war and squabbles over human rights and missile trafficking weren't causing enough trouble in U.S.-China relations, a new flashpoint is about to ignite. Congressional Republicans and some Democrats are pressing President Clinton for warmer ties with Taiwan, the booming island of 21 million off China's coast that Beijing considers a renegade province. Taiwan has suffered near-pariah status in Washington since 1979, when the U.S. officially recognized Beijing as the only legitimate Chinese government.

But now, GOP leaders think it's time to reward Taipei for the progress it has made toward democracy. Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's desire to visit his alma mater, Cornell University, this spring presents the perfect opportunity. While Clinton marginally eased curbs on Taiwan last fall, he specifically reiterated a longstanding U.S. ban on visits by Taiwan's president. Republicans say that unless Clinton lets Lee visit Lake Cayuga's shores, they'll rewrite immigration laws or the Taiwan Relations Act to override him.

MILITARY ACTION? Clinton has probably set himself up for yet another embarrassing foreign policy flip-flop. But more than the President's already low prestige is at stake. China would see a Lee visit "as violating an explicit promise," says Harry Harding, a China scholar at George Washington University. Even so, Beijing might hold its ire in check. But if Republicans push too far and whip up Taiwan's independence movement, that might provoke military action by China's leaders, who are on edge as Deng Xiaoping fades from the scene. China has never renounced the use of force against Taiwan if the island formally proclaims its independence. So instead of doing Taiwan a favor, GOP hard-liners would be jeopardizing its prosperity and the region's stability.

A big tilt toward Taiwan could also halt what appears to be a recent softening of Beijing's usually tough tone toward Taipei. In a Chinese New Year's speech, President Jiang Zemin raised the possibility of visiting Taiwan and emphasized the need for peaceful reunification.

So Washington's tough task is to improve relations with Taipei without going over the line. The U.S. is caught in a tug-of-war between Beijing and Taipei. Taiwan's ruling party is being pressed by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. With Taiwan presidential elections looming in early 1996, Lee needs to show he's boosting the island's international standing. His government is underwriting a lavish lobbying campaign in Washington to drum up support for his visit as well as Taiwanese membership in the U.N. American business, eyeing juicy infrastructure contracts in Taiwan, also wants diplomatic concessions.

The Administration would prefer to try to accommodate Taipei's ambitions through less controversial measures such as pushing for Taiwan's membership in the World Bank. The hope is that mainland China and the Taiwanese will achieve some sort of mutual acceptance. Already, trade between the two countries is booming to the point that Taiwan has proposed dropping its ban on direct shipments to China. Taiwan's China Airlines is mulling removing the national flag from its planes in anticipation of eventual direct flights to the mainland. "The economic imperatives are so strong that they are likely to find a way" to get along "unless someone makes a stupid mistake," says John S. Wadsworth Jr., chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia Ltd. But with congressional Republicans turning up the heat, the risk is that such tentative moves toward accommodation could go up in smoke.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE