March 25, 1996
After weeks of war games and veiled threats, Taiwan held its first democratic election. Following the vote, several diplomatic steps were made to smooth relations between the mainland and Taiwan and the United States. Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the events of the weekend with two foreign policy experts.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just four days ago, China was conducting military exercises off the coast of neighboring Taiwan. China also warned the United States, which had dispatched two carrier groups to the area, not to interfere in internal Chinese affairs. The tension had been building in advance of Taiwan's first democratic presidential election. On Saturday, that vote went ahead with heavy turnout by Taiwanese voters and a big win for President Lee Teng-Hui.
The president has been trying to expand Taiwan's ties with the rest of the world, but he has not advocated complete independence from China. The elections were followed almost immediately by conciliatory statements from China and Taiwan. A foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing called for "a high level summit" and in Taipei, the government announced a plan to ease its decades-old ban on direct trade with China.
We get two perspectives on these developments now. Stanley Roth was senior director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff from March 1994 until the end of last year. He is now director of research for the U.S. Institute of Peace. Nancy Bernkopf Tucker is a professor of diplomatic history at Georgetown University. Thank you both for being with us. Mr. Roth, how do you read the conciliatory statements that are coming from both sides now?
STANLEY ROTH, U.S. Institute of Peace: I think it's an encouraging first step. I think both sides have recognized what their fundamental national interests are, which is a cross-straits dialogue process which allows continued trade and economic intercourse across the strait, and ultimately, a political resolution. And I think they now both scared themselves perhaps by the events of the past month or so, particularly this latest round of exercises, and they're now seizing the opportunity to try to get things back into a more normal condition.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So do you think that means that the crisis is over?
NANCY BERNKOPF TUCKER, Georgetown University: Well, the crisis in the sense of a military confrontation is certainly over, but the long-term problem, I think, is nowhere near resolution because the problem is too fundamental. Basically, you have two irreconcilable viewpoints on one central issue in that China demands reunification with Taiwan and Taiwan is, I would say, really dead set against reunification, certainly in the short-term but perhaps even in the longer term.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that President Lee is more pro-independence than he's letting on, the new president?
MS. TUCKER: I suspect he is, but in some ways that's irrelevant. What has been the case is because of domestic politics in Taiwan his position has been shifted increasingly towards a near independence position. He's really walking a very thin line in order to steal the fire from the Democratic Progressive Party, and so whether or not he wants independence, he has to be very close to the thing that he desires--for the people of Taiwan.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to come back to this question of irreconcilable positions in a minute, but right now, there's some talk, at least in the news reports today from both sides that President Lee might even travel to China. He said something about making "an important overseas trip." Is that a possibility, and if it is a possibility, would it be a good thing?
MR. ROTH: Well, it's certainly a possibility but it isn't anything new. If you'll recall about a year ago January, Jiang Zemin in his famous eight point proposal, famous to students of China-Taiwan issue, ordered such a summit, and, in fact, the issue was where would it take place and would it be a summit between two sovereigns, two equal heads of state, or would it be between an emperor and his vassal, as some people portray it on the mainland, and so we're a long way away from it, nevertheless, if it could take place, I think it would be an immense confidence-building measure, and it could lead to a breakthrough--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But President Lee has said that Taiwan would have to have a peace agreement with China first, right, so there would have to be so much that would happen before any kind of a summit could ever take place.
MR. ROTH: Well, one would expect a negotiation. This is the opening position. Whether it's the final position is another matter, and a lot of people are now drawing the Sadat parallel. He didn't place a whole lot of conditions when he went to Jerusalem, and he got quite a bit for it. The question is: Will President Lee do the same?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the Sadat parallel? I've seen that in several press reports.
MS. TUCKER: Well, it's certainly an effort to suggest that Lee has great international stature, which is, after all, what he's been after all along. And it also suggests that he may well try for a very dramatic opening to China.
His talk during the campaign, his hints that people will be surprised at the next capital he turns up in, did seem to suggest that he thought he might go to Beijing, but I think as you were saying, this is going to need a long period of intense discussion at a lower level, which is really the most constructive thing we can look forward to now as a resumption of real dialogue. It doesn't matter whether it's about a summit or other issues. The fact that they would begin talking again is really central.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to go back to your point that there are perhaps irreconcilable positions here. China is deadly serious about Taiwan, isn't it?
MS. TUCKER: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did the Clinton administration mislead--misread that?
MS. TUCKER: I think Americans have a lot of trouble understanding precisely what's going on here. The way I see it, on the one hand, you have a growth of very determined nationalism on the mainland, nationalism really has taken the place of Communism as a unifying principle for the people of China, and at the same time, you have a growth of nationalism in Taiwan. You have a generational change going on there. Many fewer people have nostalgic connections to the mainland, and they are beginning to identify themselves as Taiwanese and no longer as Chinese first. And so it's very hard to bring those two nationalisms together and try to get a resolution out of that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You were in the National Security Council. Did you--when you allowed Lee Teng-Hui to come and speak to Cornell University, did you misread what the Chinese position would be?
MR. ROTH: I think Taiwan misread what the Chinese position would be, and it's quite interesting that President Lee made a statement a few weeks ago saying that he had seriously underestimated the Chinese reaction. Many of the things that China did were, in fact, predictable and were predicted, but Lee Teng-Hui dismissed them and said, oh, no, I understand what's going on in the mainland, our economic ties are so strong that this is not going to happen, and I think he was surprised.
If you think about it, this has probably become the most expensive visit in history, a 25 percent drop in the stock market plus a 10 percent depreciation of the currency placed his visit at the billion dollar range or more, and so I think that's where the real miscalculation was. But the more important point is the future.
And I am not at all persuaded that this is, in fact, an irreconcilable conflict. I think there is enormous pragmatism on Taiwan, and if this were even partially met by the mainland in terms of giving greater international space, for example, Taiwan's membership in international agencies that don't have sovereignty, economic agencies, that this would--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Like the International Monetary Fund.
MR. ROTH: Right. The World Bank, you know, that's already started in earlier--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is your prescription now for--
MR. ROTH: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --how this might be worked out.
MR. ROTH: An earlier, more confident Chinese regime did permit China and Taiwan to work out an arrangement that saw a Taiwan team in the Olympics, Taiwan membership in the ADB, Taiwan presence at the head of state level at the APEC meeting. There had been precedence for Taiwan showing up at major international organizations, and this could be continued, and it would lance the boil, in a sense, put some of this pressure for independence amongst a relatively small, roughly 20 percent minority, on Taiwan.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that, Ms. Tucker?
MS. TUCKER: Well, indeed, there's another interesting precedent as well, and that is that the Soviet Union when it first came into the United Nations back in the 1940s insisted upon and was granted three soviet seats for Moscow, for Byelorussia, and for Ukraine, and a similar kind of formula has been suggested to China that there could be two U.N. seats, a Chinese seat, and a Chinese Taiwan seat, if you will. So there are creative solutions available if people are willing to be pragmatic and try to follow them.
The problem I think at the moment is that China feels too threatened by these alternative scenarios. It certainly might be more willing to concede on economic grounds but on the central political ground it's going to be reluctant. And yet, that's precisely where I think the people of Taiwan want greater international visibility. And I guess I would say that though it's true that the people who are willing to say publicly that they're for independence hovers around 25 percent of the population.
If China was not opposed to Taiwan independence, I think you would see 90 percent of the people opting for it tomorrow, so that though people recognize the status quo is necessary, that China is a genuine threat, I think the level of discontent with, with being pushed back towards isolation from the international arena is something that President Lee is going to have to contend with.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much damage do you think was done in the last two or three weeks, damage to U.S.-Chinese relations? I'm thinking of Walter Mead, an analyst who was quoted today as saying that more and more Chinese officials believe that the U.S. is hostile to, to China, that the U.S. wants Taiwan to be independent as a way of weakening China. I want to get both of your viewpoints, but you first. How much damage do you think was done?
MS. TUCKER: Well, I think an enormous amount of damage.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is because--and I'm thinking of the carriers.
MS. TUCKER: The ships going in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah, right.
MS. TUCKER: That's a palpable symbol, and a lot of Chinese have interpreted this as America making a choice and actually aligning itself with Taiwan. I don't think that's what the United States was doing. What the United States was doing was saying we want peace in the strait, but the Chinese chose to see us as aligning ourselves with Taipei. But the situation in U.S.-China relations has been bad for a very long time. The Lee Teng-Hui visit clearly was significantly detrimental to that relationship, but frankly, ever since 1989, U.S.-China relations have been in a lot of trouble, and what makes it worse is this Taiwan situation has aggravated things, and we are now facing the series of problems that is coming up very fast.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In trade, and--
MS. TUCKER: Corporations, trade, human rights.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How serious do you think the damage was?
MR. ROTH: I think minimal. I think that actually the United States probably gained something in terms of Chinese perspectiveness, or willingness of the Clinton administration to show the flag and make this demonstration. I think that they clearly worked. I think we got China's attention. I think the fact that the exercises terminated on scheduled and, in fact, they terminated the live fire portion early suggested that China did, indeed, get the message. This is a group of hard leaders who I think understand this type of use of force or at least the willingness to use force, and I think that had an impact. So I don't think it had any fundamental effect on how the Chinese view us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what should the role--U.S. role be now?
MR. ROTH: I think to the maximum extent possible we should try to get out of the middle of this, that we should try to stay out of the Chinese civil war, which has been the policy since 1979. Just remember that until last year China and Taiwan were making enormous strides in terms of their own relationship, in terms of political context, economic trade, tourism, and even the possibility of another summit.
So it is not inconceivable that one could get back on this track without the United States in the middle. In the absence of further military provocations from the mainland, I think the United States should remove the fleet from the region, I believe that's the intent anyway, and let the two sides try to work this out amongst themselves. If it fails, then we may have to once again consider going back in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that?
MS. TUCKER: I think it's true and very important that the United States remember that we should not be mediating between Beijing and Taipei. This is a problem that only Chinese can resolve amongst themselves. The United States really has no role here, and by taking on a role, I think it misleads people on both sides. It lets the Chinese think that we are opposed to them and then they carry that over into a host of other problems which become then more difficult to solve.
But it also reassures Taiwan that they don't have to make any compromises because the United States will always be there to protect them. So I think it's time. I'm not opposed. I think the idea of sending the fleet into the area was a good one, but now it's time for us to pull back and allow the two sides to talk directly to each other.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Ms. Tucker and Mr. Roth, thank you so much for being with us.
MS. TUCKER: Thanks.
MR. ROTH: Nice to be here.