Taiwan's former president, an agricultural economist with a Cornell doctorate, Lee Teng-hui, is in Washington this week for what he, and just about everybody involved, emphasizes is a "private visit." Beijing has made its opposition to the stopover very public, but there's no reason for Washington to kowtow.
Mr. Lee, by all accounts (apparently including Beijing's), single-handedly changed the ruling Kuomintang's (KMT) one-party rule in Taiwan and replaced it with a genuine, representative democracy. In 1992, then President (and KMT Chairman) Lee rammed a series of constitutional reforms through Taiwan's "immortal parliament" that offered several hundred thousand dollars to each aging national legislator (and each electoral college member) who had fled the Chinese mainland to Taiwan in 1949 in return for his or her resignation. They all resigned, leaving Taiwan's "Legislative Yuan of the Republic of China" bereft of any mainlander representative.
Only legislators who were actually elected on Taiwan remained in their seats. In effect, the constitutional amendments disenfranchised one billion Chinese in mainland China, depriving them of the rights, privileges and obligations under the 1947 "Constitution of the Republic of China." And, of course, to all intents Taiwan became formally independent of mainland China.
In the years since 1992, Taiwan has become Asia's most dynamic and vibrant democracy. Under the new constitutional revisions, President Lee himself had to stand in a popular election instead of relying on the "immortal" national electoral assembly. He won the election of 1996 with 54% of the vote against three challengers. Thirteen years later, after splitting with his own KMT, it is agreed that Mr. Lee's vision, exertion and determination constituted the driving force in bringing about this remarkable transformation.
The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, of course, have been appalled by the success of democracy in Taiwan. Back in 1992, they were still international pariahs for their bloody suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. They could see Taiwan's democracy for what it was: a beacon of hope to the Chinese people; and also a move to separate Taiwan permanently from Communist China.
So, it's no wonder that the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing made it very clear just last week that, "the Chinese people are fully aware what kind of person [Lee Teng-hui] is … We oppose his visit to the U.S. in whatever capacity of name to sell his theory of Taiwan's independence and undermine cross-straight relations and Sino-US relations."
Understandably, with Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, and random terror here and there, the U.S. Administration isn't eager for any further complications in its global portfolio that Mr. Lee's visit might generate. Nonetheless, Taiwan cannot be relegated indefinitely to the bottom of the foreign policy inbox. Not only does the U.S. have a moral interest in keeping democratic Taiwan out of the hands of a decidedly undemocratic China, it has an even greater interest in keeping its ninth largest trading partner beyond the control of its second largest.
Washington should also consider the fact that Taiwan remains an important defense and intelligence partner. And despite the disappointing failure of Taiwan's new democratic legislature to pass a special defense spending bill to purchase $15 billion in U.S. arms over the next decade, Taiwan did buy $1.4 billion in U.S. defense articles in fiscal year 2002, $592 million in fiscal year 2003, and $962 million in 2004 -- making Taiwan the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency's second largest cash-customer thus far in the 21st century.
But there is a growing perception among Taiwan's voters that Washington is ready to cut them off. Top Taiwanese politicians, like People First Party chairman James Soong, believe that Beijing, not Washington, should be the guarantor of Taiwan's security in the new century. After all, he insists, "When I visited Beijing in May, China's President Hu Jintao told me that there would not be any military threat facing Taiwan as long as it does not declare independence." It was an assurance, he argued, that proves Taiwan simply does not need American arms, or American protection.
Mr. Lee doesn't agree. He fears that "without a national consensus on Taiwan's identity, Taiwan will be lost to China." This has contributed to making Mr. Lee a member of a list of international statesmen who receives special vitriol from the Chinese Communist leadership in Beijing. He is in good company; others include the Dalai Lama, who is charged with attempting to "split" Tibet from Chinese rule, and the late John Paul II, who had the temerity to canonize as saints 120 Chinese martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington unsuccessfully pressured the National Press Club to deny Mr. Lee a forum during his visit and has sent envoys to the State Department and the White House to lodge formal warnings that Mr. Lee's presence in Washington will "damage" (or maybe "destroy," the Chinese term is translated both ways) U.S. relations with China. The State Department's formal response is that Mr. Lee possesses a valid American tourist visa and may visit the U.S. whenever he wants on private business.
At the behest of his several hosts, the former Taiwanese president is trying to keep his visit low-key. Still, he will be honored on Capitol Hill by several congressmen and senators who see him as an example of the kind of Asian politician that America must support if Asia is to remain democratic. There are also several prominent Congressional personalities who will attend some events simply because they resent the arrogance of Communist complaints about true heroes of democracy in the capital of the free world.
Much has been said about China's increasing ability to translate its economic mass in the Asia-Pacific region into global political clout. It will be a sad day for democracy if Washington succumbs to the same forces. Giving the Cornell economist from Taiwan a warm welcome in Washington would be a good exercise in resisting those forces.
John Tkacik a senior research fellow in Asian Studies
at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeaered in the Far Eastern Economic Review