A Clinton About-Face Tweaks China

BY cracking open its door to Taiwan's President Lee Teng-Hui, the United States confronts a new crisis in its diplomatic straddle between China and Taiwan.

On May 23, a day after the Clinton administration lowered its opposition to a visit by Mr. Lee, the US found itself caught between two Chinas as a grateful Taipei applauded Washington's shift and Beijing bitterly denounced the move.

Lee, who has been denied entry to the US in the past, will be the first Taiwanese president to visit the US since 1979, when Washington recognized Beijing as China's exclusive government.

China accused the US of breaking agreements recognizing it and warned the US it would ''bear all the consequences'' of its decision. China considers Taiwan a renegade province.

President Clinton, under increasing pressure from Congress, did an about-face and decided to allow Lee to make a low-key private visit to his alma mater, Cornell University, in June.

Lee's visit marks a change in US policy, in place since 1979 when the US recognized mainland China as the official China and downgraded relations with Taipei. Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen summoned US Ambassador Stapleton Roy to lodge a formal protest and signal that Lee's visit would cause ''serious damage'' to Sino-US relations. Washington has maintained that, despite granting Lee a visa, US policy toward China has not changed.

''Let there be no doubt about this: If the US administration succumbs to pressure of some pro-Taiwan elements ... relations can only retrogress instead of making advances,'' an official statement said.

''In the final analysis what is of concern to [China] is less the development itself than where this development could lead,'' says a diplomat in Beijing, adding that ''reassurance [to China] will rest on how this visit will be handled.''

''The Chinese are seriously concerned about the problem in trying to smoke out what the visit means,'' he says, explaining that Beijing is worried other countries could follow the United States lead.

Lee, a popular politician who has spearheaded Taiwan's transition to democracy and finessed diplomatic isolation and Chinese opposition to raise the island's international profile, expressed his appreciation to his American congressional supporters.

Minimizing offense to China during the Lee visit will be delicate, particularly if the Taiwanese leader meets with his congressional supporters. Although the dispute has enraged China and heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait, US China analysts say Beijing's reliance on US and Taiwanese trade will check China's belligerence and a serious deterioration in relations.

Given the political jockeying under way to succeed ailing leader Deng Xiaoping, a strong Chinese rhetorical response to Clinton's announcement was inevitable, they say.

''No standing member of the [Chinese] Politburo can afford to sound soft on the issue,'' explains scholar Chong-Pin Lin of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. At the same time, Chinese leaders are concerned that responding too firmly could have adverse consequences that could curtail China's economic development.

For its part, the Clinton administration declined Mr. Lee's visa request until the last minute out of concern that a row with China could compromise US interests elsewhere. The US is seeking to convince China to stop selling nuclear technology to Iran and help persuade North Korea to implement its 1994 nuclear agreement with the US.

In the end, Clinton decided the risks of alienating Congress, where support for Lee's visa request was virtually unanimous, outweighed the risks of alienating China.

Taiwan enjoys wide support in Congress because it has achieved everything that China has not: a thriving free- market economy, an improved human rights record, and progress toward democratic government.

Driven by the imperative of cold-war politics, successive US presidents refused to recognize Communist China, holding to the fiction that Taiwan was the real China. President Nixon began a historic shift in policy with his visit to the mainland in 1972. In 1979, President Carter recognized the Beijing government and ended formal US ties with Taiwan.

One senior China expert says Clinton ''botched'' the visa issue because his senior advisers have never discussed the issue of Taiwan -- internally or with the Chinese -- in the context of ''where the relationship with China is going.''

In Taiwan the media said the Lee visit is a major diplomatic coup and boosts its prestige but also raises doubts about further anger in China. The United Daily News called the US decision a ''defeat'' for China but warned that Taiwan's ''fundamental interests will be damaged if Lee's visit raises serious disputes with Beijing.''

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