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AUGUST 2, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 4

On Second Thought...
Pushed by a testy U.S., Taipei hurries to clarify its leader's startling stance on the island's political status

Sun Chung-tah/AP
A Taiwanese soldier keeps guard on Matsu Island.

By TERRY McCARTHY Taipei

The Taiwan-China relationship is a semantic struggle with mass death potential, a word game where clarity spells danger and ambiguity has kept the peace for half a century. It fell to U.S. President Bill Clinton last week to call for a return to "peaceful dialogue"--code words for creative obfuscation--after Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui got far too specific on the delicate issue of Taiwan statehood.

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CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune examine China at 50

On July 18, Clinton placed a 30-minute phone call to President Jiang Zemin, assuring the Chinese leader that the U.S. still supported a "One China" policy. Lee had seemed to contradict this sacrosanct doctrine with his July 9 comments claiming a "special state-to-state relationship" with Beijing. Clinton subsequently said at a White House press conference that he was "not entirely sure ... what the Lee statements were trying to convey"--a polite way of saying he knew exactly what Lee was trying to say but didn't want to hear it.

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Vice President Lien "clarifies" the situation

Chastened by Washington's criticism and its decision to postpone a U.S. defense delegation visit to Taipei--and mindful of the toll on local stock prices--Taiwan officials duly retreated into verbal tangles and clarifications of Lee's words. Government spokesman Chen Chien-jen allowed that "the so-called 'One China' policy has different meanings, different interpretations" and called for "one democratically reunified China in the future." By week's end tension between Taipei and Beijing had calmed considerably, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth and special envoy Richard Bush arrived in Beijing and Taipei, respectively, to further "clarify" the situation.

But if U.S. intervention has helped to avert the danger of a military clash for the time being--Clinton warned against the use of force to resolve the issue--underlying problems remain. In Beijing, Jiang is determined to move the reunification process with Taiwan forward before his term expires in 2002. Lee, supported by the majority of Taiwan's 22 million people, is equally determined to resist China's creeping diplomacy. The mainland's crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement last week further reminded Taiwan's democratic residents of the gulf that exists between their two societies.

Lee's apparent change in policy was not as impromptu as it first seemed. According to Tien Hung-mao, head of the Institute for National Policy Research and an adviser to Lee, Taipei had decided to redefine its relations with Beijing after Taiwan's chief cross-Strait negotiator, Koo Chen-fu, went to Shanghai last fall. At that time the Chinese side made it clear they wanted to move directly to political talks about reunification. With Koo's mainland counterpart, Wang Daohan, scheduled to make a return trip to Taiwan this October, there was mounting fear, Tien says, of "walking into a trap laid by China of political dialogue." As long as Beijing claims to be the only legitimate government for all of China, Tien says, Taiwan "is negotiating for defeat." President Lee's office has been quietly seeking advice from international-law experts on the relations between two states in one nation--the Koreas and the formerly divided Germany are relevant examples. Expecting some resistance, Taipei decided not to inform the U.S. of the policy change in advance--"if he did that he might not have made the statement at all," says Tien. Lee chose to use an interview with a German radio station to make the announcement, which, Tien says, "allows for some flexibility and some reinterpretation."

Two weeks later, that flexibility has been stretched to the utmost. In an interview with Time, Vice President Lien Chan did not use the term "state-to-state," confining himself to calling for "parity" between the two sides. Lien, who is Lee's heir apparent, even denied there had been a policy change at all, calling it simply a "clarification."

Though China is angry, it's not likely to resort to military maneuvers as in 1996. "Beijing knows that reunification depends on peaceful relations between Taiwan and China," says Kevin Chan, head of Greater China economic research at Nomura International in Hong Kong. "How can that happen if China is sending missiles into the Strait?" Apart from Clinton's warnings against the use of force, China can ill afford the negative economic fallout of any military action. Foreign investment and bank lending are already plummeting, and Beijing is haunted by fears that economic hardship could stir serious social unrest.

This has not stopped Beijing from saber-rattling, however. As some Hong Kong newspapers published unsourced stories on alleged Chinese military mobilization, Zhang Qiyue, Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing, called Lee's statement "a serious provocation." Said Yan Xuetong, a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing: "Lee's statement intends to show the people of Taiwan that it is possible for Taiwan to achieve safe independence," and warned of "substantial action to stop Taiwan's splittism."

But few China-watchers expect to see a repeat of the 1996 crisis, largely because of the speed of the U.S. reaction. Having given Lee a visa to visit the U.S. in 1995, Washington did little to calm the angry rhetoric of the Chinese until they began firing missiles into the sea around Taiwan. Then Washington had to send two aircraft carriers to babysit the island. This time the reaction was rapid and decisive. "The U.S. has learned from the '96 crisis," says Tien. "It has stepped in right away, and taken it immediately to the highest level."

Now the challenge is to return the sovereignty issue to its customary fog of ambivalence and shift the focus to something else. "The biggest opportunity in this crisis may be to achieve World Trade Organization entry for Beijing and Taipei," says David Lampton, a China expert at Johns Hopkins University. "This will facilitate the kind of cross-Strait interaction that is in everyone's interests." Whatever the semantics of statehood, getting stock market prices back on track is something both sides can agree on.

With reporting by Hannah Beech/Hong Kong, Barry Hillenbrand/Washington and Mia Turner/Beijing

This edition's table of contents

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