Taiwan's foreign minister: diplomat minus passport

China frequently hinders the travel plans of newly appointed Taiwanese Foreign Minister Tan Sun Chen.

It sounds like a fairy tale and it partly is: When Tan Sun Chen came to America in 1964, his native Taiwan was under a martial law dictatorship. Salaries averaged $200 a month. Tiny Taiwan was known as a maker of cheap plastics not as a semiconductor giant.

In America, Mr. Chen flourished. As an Asian student leader he lobbied Congress on behalf of human rights in Taiwan, making him persona non grata in Taipei. He earned a PhD in geophysics, worked for the Department of Commerce for 19 years, and became a US citizen.

That is, until this spring when the island that once banned Chen from ever coming home made him its foreign minister. But to take the job Chen had to renounce the US passport that allowed him to travel the world freely.

That's where the fairy tale starts to drag: Chen is now a foreign minister who can't go anywhere foreign. With Beijing giving no quarter to states issuing visas to officials from the Republic of China (Taiwan) Chen is like a bowler without a ball, a chef without a kitchen. He can't really travel. For Taiwan, diplomatic trips are a voyage into the unknown. The mission may or may not be accomplished, depending on whether China can find out about it, and try to stop it.

"My ability to travel is hindered by the People's Republic of China," says Chen, fresh from a constricted visit to Europe and the US. "When I was a student in the US, I was a rebel, blacklisted in Taiwan for my disagreements with the government dictatorship. They didn't let me travel. Not even when my father passed away. Now as foreign minister, I again can't travel."

Chen notes that his country has McDonald's, the tallest building in the world, and $50 billion invested in mainland China. But as a Taiwan official he could not go to Washington while in the US two weeks ago, or visit his granddaughter in Virginia.

In Europe this month, representing a country that just held its fourth national elections, Chen grudgingly admits it wasn't France or Britain that let him in. Rather it was the little Czech Republic. He won't discuss the visit, but says he met a cardinal at the Vatican, so he also passed through Italy.

"I tried to visit Austria, but my visa was rejected," Chen says. "I protested. I told Austrian visa officials it violated the UN charter of free movement for officials. It seems that when I am foreign minister I can't see anyone."

In Beijing Chen is described as having a "dangerous" biography, presumably for supporting advocates of separate Taiwanese identity.

Beijing views Taiwan as part of China's sovereign borders even though the two countries have had divergent development for 100 years. China doesn't recognize Taipei. Since the reelection of Chen Shui-bian in March, tensions have risen sharply in Beijing among officials who feel the island is drifting from the desired goal of unification. China held military exercises around the Taiwan straits this week.

Chinese missions are also more assiduous at protesting even small violations of the "one China policy." Last week British authorities acknowledged that Chinese embassy officials had badgered Barry Rider of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, and coordinator of a symposium on economic crime, for an improper invitation to a Taiwan guest. Mr. Rider says the Chinese officials said "pressure would be applied to ensure that the symposium did not remain - and I would lose my job."

Taiwan's foreign minister is largely symbolic. Chen, an expert on atmospherics, was a central figure in exile Taiwan politics. He is a new type of foreign minister. For years, the job was given to career diplomats or elites with mainland heritage. Chen, a native Taiwanese, was riding a bicycle in south Taiwan when he was informed of his selection, sources say.

"Given our status it is difficult for the foreign minister to deal with substantive issues," says a former high ranking official in Taipei. "Much of his portfolio is absorbed in other agencies where the work is less obvious. Chen is different, though. He is more representative of the population of Taiwan over the past 50 years than previous holders of his office."

As a young man, Chen opposed the one-party government of Chiang Kai-shek. He says that in the Taiwan of the 1950s, as a native Taiwanese, he constantly felt that he was treated differently. "It wasn't completely clear at first, it was still fuzzy. But you felt like when others were treated differently, or better, that it wasn't fair. You were harassed, and gradually you wanted to understand why."

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