Hong Kong — Just days before Ronald Reagan's inauguration a diplomatic hot potato involving Washington's relations with Taiwan and China was dropped into the President-elect's lap.
It nearly poisoned the new President's ties with China at a time when the Reagan administration is perceived in Peking as already being too sympathetic to Taiwan.
At issue were invitations to Mr. Reagan's inauguration offered to five senior officials from Taiwan.
Washington's subsequent retreat and announcement that Chai Zemin, Chinese ambassador to Washington, would be the only Chinese officially invited to the inauguration points up the sensitivity of top Reagan officials to China's feelings on the issue.
That and their apparent willingness to view Chinese warnings on Taiwan seriously provide further evidence that, contrary to Mr. Reagan's campaign statements, the new administration is not likely to alter substantially the US-Peking relationship. And it suggests that any strengthening of Washington's ties with Taipei will fall well short of the official status Mr. Reagan previously advocated.
The invitations were reported to have been arranged by Peking-born Anna Chennault, widow of World War II flying ace Gen. Claire L. Chennault, longtime Republican Party activist, and prominent member of the Taiwan lobby. Mrs. Chennault told the authorities in Taiwan on a recent visit there that she was acting as a representative of the incoming administration, and that the invitations were official.
The government in Taipei was elated at this development, as it appeared to signal Mr. Reagan's intention to stand by his campaign pledges to upgrade US-Taiwan relations, and the news of the invitations was promptly made public.
Peking reacted angrily.
Coming on top of the Netherlands' decision to sell two submarines to Taiwan, Chinese leaders saw the move as another sign of a disturbing new trend among Western governments having relations with Peking -- namely, the idea that as long as those relations were maintained, China would not seriously object to stronger ties between countries of the West and the Taipei regime.
China's ambassador to the United States, Chai Zemin, reportedly warned he would boycott the inauguration if the Taiwanese dignitaries attended.
When it became clear that Peking was serious about instructing its ambassador to boycott the inauguration, the Reagan team began to look for a way out of the dilemma, which was threatening to provoke a serious diplomatic incident on the very day the new President took office.
On Jan. 15 the inaugural committee was instructed by senior officials responsible for Asia policy in the new administration to disinvite Tsiang Yien-si, secretary-general of the ruling Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, who headed the group and the other Taiwan dignitaries.
The committee then informed Taiwan's Coordination Council on North American Affairs (CCNAA) that Mr. Tsiang and his colleagues "would not be welcome" at the inauguration even if they held valid tickets.
However, Konsin Shah, head of the CCNAA, was not disinvited, apparently because Peking has grudgingly accepted his unofficial presence in Washington as part of the original US-China normalization agreement, and therefore did not specifically refer to him in its protests.
Faced with this ultimatum, Tsiang Yien-si, who had just arrived in Washington , came down with a diplomatic illness. Claiming he had the flu, he checked into the Jefferson Memorial Hospital on the night of Jan. 18, and a CCNAA spokesman said Mr. Tsiang was too ill to attend the inauguration.
At the same time, a State Department spokesman said the only Chinese officially invited to the inauguration was the Chinese ambassador, and that "any persons from Taiwan who attend will do so as private individuals and not in any official or representative capacity."
His remarks were approvingly quoted in a New China News Agency dispatch just 12 hours before the inauguration, indicating that China was at last satisfied with the actions and statements of the Reagan camp.
On Inauguration Day, Chai Zemin abandoned his boycott threat and took his place with the rest of the diplomatic corps. Tsiang Yien-si stayed away, ostensibly recovering from the flu. Lin Yang-kang, the governor of Taiwan province and second highest-ranking member of the group of five, never left Taipei.
Interestingly, the three other Taiwan officials invited by Anna Chennault did attend in a "private" capacity. So did Konsin Shah, along with CCNAA's chief expert on weapons purchases. China said nothing about this.
The initial US response to Mr. Chai's threat of a boycott had been to explain to the Chinese that there were two sets of invitations to the inauguration. One set was issued by the Reagan-controlled inaugural committee and was considered to be "official." The Chinese were told that nobody from Taiwan had been given this kind of invitation. In addition, however, each member of Congress was given 20 tickets to distribute as he or she saw fit.
US officials explained to the Chinese that if a pro- Taiwan congressman provided tickets to Mrs. Chennault to deliver to the five dignitaries in Taipei, as was apparently the case, this did not constitute an "official" invitation, and, in any case, there was nothing the new administration could do about it.
Konsin Shah, for example, had been invited "unofficially" by Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield, whose office was handling the distribution of tickets to the 535 members of Congress.
To the Chinese, who take invitations to and appearances at public ceremonies as important indications of government policy, the US explanation was not merely unacceptable, it was incomprehensible. "Who are they trying to kid? A three-year-old child?" asked the authoritative pro-Peking Hong Kong daily Wen Hui Pao in an angry editorial.
In repeated meetings with US officials in Washington and in Peking, Chinese diplomats stressed their opposition to the presence of Tsiang Yien-si and his colleagues at the inauguration in any capacity. And the official New China News Agency commented, "US officials in Washington . . . did not give any clarification in a responsible manner" to Peking's protests.
"The official US invitation to Taiwan officials to attend President-elect Reagan's inauguration," the agency went on, "is an important step toward resumption of official relations with Taiwan in violation of the principles contained in the Sino-US communique on the establishment of diplomatic relations."
The political fallout from the controversy has been revealing. For China's part, the fact that Chai Zemin eventually went to the inauguration, even though the three dignitaries from Taipei, plus Konsin Shah and the other CCNAA official , were also there, is significant. It indicates that despite Peking's strident rhetoric, China is prepared to be flexible on the Taiwan question, provided US- Taiwanese ties are not flaunted too openly by the US government, as would have been the case had the Kuomintang's secretary-general, Tsiang Yien-si, attended.
From Taiwan's viewpoint, Mr. Tsiang's decision to feign illness in the face of his disinvitation demonstrates that Taipei is not out to embarrass Mr. Reagan. Indeed, State Department sources say that while the affair left the Reagan camp annoyed at Taiwan's US supporters for creating the problem, and at China for making such a big issue of it, there were no hard feelings reported between the new administration and the government in Taipei.
Finally, the episode raises the question of just how much clout the Taiwan lobby will have with the Reagan government. One one hand, Mrs. Chennault's involvement in this diplomatic mess is thought to have damaged her position in Washington and Taipei. On the other, the Taiwan lobby was able to wangle an invitation.