The Beijing government has lodged a vigorous protest concerning the recent visit of Taiwan's defense minister, Tang Yiau-ming, to the United States. That in itself is nothing new. Beijing routinely objects to visits by current or former officials of the Taipei government and has always urged Washington to deny visas to such individuals. All of the previous protests were without merit, and the United States was right to reject them. This time, though, the PRC has a valid point.
Tang's visit was different in one crucial respect from the previous episodes. Those earlier trips involved either "transit stops" in the United States by Taiwanese officials who were on their way to other destinations or involved private activities by those officials. The stopovers by Taiwan's president Chen Shui-bian in 2000 and 2001 were examples of the former. The visit by then-President Lee Teng-hui to attend a reunion of his graduating class at Cornell University in 1995 was an example of the latter.
On the surface, Tang's trip was also private. He was in Florida to attend a conference on East Asian security issues sponsored by a private organization. During the course of that gathering, however, he held discussions with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz was, by far, the highest level U.S. official to meet with a Taiwanese defense minister since the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. PRC leaders suspect-with some justification-that the Tang-Wolfowitz meeting is an example of rapidly increasing military cooperation between Taiwan and the United States.
An important distinction needs to be made. Whether the United States allows a Taiwanese official to enter the country for a transit stop or a private visit is an internal American affair. Beijing is always protesting Washington's alleged attempts to interfere in China's internal affairs. U.S. leaders should throw that language back at their Chinese counterparts and note that Beijing does not have the right to determine who gets a visa to enter the United States. It should also be acceptable for Taiwanese officials to speak at public gatherings while in America. Even meetings with members of Congress ought to be permitted, since under the U.S. Constitution, the executive branch, not Congress, deals with matters of diplomatic recognition. Previous U.S. administrations have been too deferential to Beijing regarding the conduct of high-profile Taiwanese visitors. For example, the Clinton administration had Chen Shui-bian held virtually incommunicado at his hotel during his stopover in Los Angeles in 2000.
But a decision to have a high-level member of the Bush administration meet with the Taiwanese defense minister is a different matter. That implies de-facto diplomatic recognition, and Beijing has a right to object that such a meeting violates Washington's official commitment to a one-China policy.
The United States can't have it both ways. Either Washington adheres to a one-China policy or it does not. Approving meetings between a high-ranking administration official and a Taiwanese cabinet minister implies recognition of the Taiwan government. If that was not what was intended, then the meeting was improper.
Washington can, of course, abandon its adherence to a one-China policy and extend diplomatic recognition to Taiwan as an independent state. But that would be a step with far-reaching and very dangerous ramifications. The Bush administration has given no indication that it intends to make such a dramatic change in U.S. policy. But if the administration still embraces a one-China policy, it needs to avoid provocations such as the Tang-Wolfowitz meeting in the future.