The White House refused to comment on China’s book seizure. Although there may not be much Washington can do about “The Clinton Years,” the administration’s obsequiousness is ingrained. Most recently, the State Department went out of its way to accommodate China’s criticism of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s brief stopover in Los Angeles.
Of the latter, my colleague, Ted Galen Carpenter, uncharitably observed that “Clinton administration officials once again have their lips firmly planted on Beijing’s boot.” But he was actually far too kind. The location of their lips cannot be reported in a family newspaper.
Taiwan is isolated, but not alone. Twenty-nine nations still recognize the Republic of China, and President Chen was traveling to Central America to visit some of Taiwan’s friends. That meant a stop in Los Angeles.
This naturally offended Beijing, which claims the island state (like Tibet) as its own. Apparently no Taiwanese - at least, no Taiwanese official of note - is supposed to visit America, even for 16 hours, until Taipei accepts China’s sovereignty.
The People’s Republic of China made much the same argument five years ago, when President Lee Teng-hui attended a reunion at Cornell University, his alma mater. The administration demonstrated the natural position of its lips by promising to deny Lee’s visa application. Congressional protests led the administration to reverse course, all the while assuring Beijing that Lee’s visit was “private.”
On President Clinton’s 1998 visit to Beijing, he uttered his famous “three noes” - no U.S. support for a two-China policy, Taiwan’s independence, or even Taipei’s membership in international organizations for which statehood is required. His effusive support for the PRC undercut Taiwan’s quest to forge a separate identity.
Now comes President Chen’s visit, which, Beijing declared, could “severely” damage Sino-American relations. Although the administration decided not to declare the nation which claims to lead the “free world” off limits to the head of state of a vibrant capitalist democracy, it did go out of its way to quarantine him.
Reassuring Beijing that the visit was private was always simple: no administration official need meet with Chen. But the administration attempted to prevent him from meeting with anyone else, including congressmen. It reportedly informed Chen that he could expect future visas only if he kept this trip totally private.
Even this timorous behavior did not satisfy the PRC. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao expressed his government’s “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” after Washington issued Chen a visa. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.) broke through the U.S. cordon and met with Chen at the latter’s hotel. Otherwise, Chen might as well have landed in Phnom Penh or Cairo as in Los Angeles. How could a U.S. President, representing the most important and powerful nation on earth, so abase himself? America’s policy toward both Taiwan and China is bankrupt.
Good relations with the PRC are important. It is the world’s most populous state; it could eventually generate the globe’s biggest economy. Today, at least, it is the only conceivable peer competitor to America, and it sits in the midst of the world’s most dynamic economies. Thus, Washington should encourage the PRC to move in a more liberal direction. Particularly important is approving permanent normal trading relations, in order to encourage the sort of private cultural and economic ties that make a freer, more democratic China more likely. Nothing is certain - politics obviously trumped free trade in the case of “The Clinton Years” - but more contact makes more freedom more likely.