It was only a few years ago that Republicans castigated the Clinton administration for the way it treated Taiwanese leaders who had stop over visits to the United States during trips to countries that maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name).
Those criticisms were warranted. Clinton officials treated both current Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian and his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, as pariahs. During their stopovers, they were prevented from even meeting with members of Congress or the media–much less being allowed to give public speeches. Republicans accused the administration of kowtowing to China, which claims that Taiwan is merely a renegade province.
When it came into office, the Bush administration vowed to treat the leader of a sister democracy with far more consideration. And it did. The reception accorded Chen during his stopovers throughout Bush’s first term was cordial and respectful, despite strong objections from China. Chen routinely interacted with journalists, members of Congress, and public audiences while in the United States.
Washington’s reaction was very different, however, regarding Chen’s latest trip in early May. This time, U.S. officials even refused his request to land in New York City for a refueling stop on his way to Central America. Indeed, they indicated that all airports in the United States would be off limits. They did offer to let him stop in Alaska, provided that he have no interaction with the public.
There appear to be two major reasons for Washington’s hostile response.
Throughout his presidency, Chen has pushed the envelope on Taiwanese independence, often infuriating Beijing and heightening tensions in the Taiwan Strait. He also has tended to blind side the United States with his initiatives–most notably with his decision in early 2006 to abolish the National Unification Council and the National Unification Guidelines. That action sent a blunt message to Beijing that Taiwan was not interested in political reunification with the mainland, now or in the future.
Chen’s behavior has produced rising annoyance in the State Department and even in the White House. U.S. officials have been looking for a way to administer a public rebuke to Chen, and it appears that they found one.
The other reason for snubbing Chen on his latest visit appears to be a calculation that the gesture would increase the likelihood that Beijing would be more supportive of U.S. calls for pressure on Iran in the ongoing nuclear crisis. If that was Washington’s expectation, it is extremely naive. China has an array of reasons for not wanting to antagonize Iran. A U.S. decision to snub Taiwan’s leader is far too limited a concession to sway Beijing’s decision.
In any case, it is a shabby way for the United States to treat the leader of another democracy. Granted, it would have been improper for the administration to have formally recognized the visit or to have held meetings between executive branch officials and Chen. Washington maintains diplomatic relations with China, not Taiwan, and it does not dispute Beijing’s claim that China is part of Taiwan.
But Chen should have been accorded the respect and consideration given to any other distinguished foreign visitor.
Washington’s conduct also smacked of crude interference in Taiwan’s internal political affairs. The treatment accorded Chen contrasted sharply with that accorded Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou, the leader of the opposition Kuomintang Party, during his trip to the United States a month earlier. Ma was allowed to make public speeches and was given very cordial receptions throughout his visit. Those contrasting actions convey a not-very-subtle message that Washington would like to see Ma as the next president of Taiwan.
The current policy toward Taiwan is the worst possible combination. Washington maintains an implicit commitment to defend the island if China ever decides to use force to compel reunification. That is an increasingly dangerous and unwise commitment–especially as China’s economic and military power continues to mount.
At the same time, U.S. leaders seem to believe that the defense commitment entitles Washington to meddle in Taiwan’s political affairs, seeking to affect the outcome of the island’s next presidential election in 2008.
A better course would be to phase-out the defense commitment while showing proper respect for Taiwan’s elected leader. The latest incident suggests that Washington’s policy badly needs re-calibration.
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of seven books on international affairs, including America’s Coming War with China: A Collision Course over Taiwan (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006)