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Trump should honor Lee, call Tsai, send Nimitz to Taiwan Strait

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The free world is observing the passing of Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first democratically-elected president. He was widely considered “the father of Taiwan’s democracy.” Designated by semi-dictator Chiang Ching-kuo, son of full-bore dictator Chiang Kai-shek, as vice president in 1984, he became president in 1988 on Chiang Ching-kuo’s death.  

Almost immediately, he began dismantling the KMT autocracy. He accelerated the move toward representative government begun under Chiang Ching-kuo after years of bloody struggle with the freedom-fighters who eventually became Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Lee came to the world’s attention in 1995 when, as sitting Taiwan president, he decided to attend his Cornell University reunion and applied for a visa to the United States. China’s Communist government demanded that Washington deny the visa as a violation of Beijing’s One China Principle.

The Clinton administration complied, but Lee, ever optimistic about America, was not deterred from asking again. Taiwan’s many supporters in the U.S. Congress were outraged by the visa denial, and the domestic political pressure caused the State Department to reverse its decision. That sparked vituperation from Beijing, which launched a major naval exercise in the Taiwan Strait, including live-fire exercises and firing missiles toward Taiwan.

An alarmed Clinton administration responded by sending the USS Nimitz carrier strike force through the Taiwan Strait, the first such transit since Richard Nixon pulled the 7th Fleet out to meet Mao Zedong’s precondition for their 1972 meeting. When Beijing complained, Washington “explained” it was merely a weather diversion, not a strategic signal. That calmed the situation for a few months.

In March of 1996, Lee ran as the Nationalist Party candidate in Taiwan’s first direct election for president. To protest this expression of political autonomy, China again launched missiles across the Strait, and President Clinton again called upon the USS Nimitz to deliver the U.S. response, this time joined by the USS Independence. But none of that awesome naval air power entered the Strait because Beijing promised “a sea of fire” and threatened a missile attack on Los Angeles.

In his 1999 book, “The Road to Democracy: Taiwan’s Pursuit of Identity,” Lee was generous in describing the second missile episode that ended with a U.S. backdown. He said it showed that in the face of Beijing’s missile tests, Washington “did not sit by silently, but took action to stand by” the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). 

In fact, when asked point-blank by Chinese officers how the U.S. would respond to an attack on Taiwan, the Clinton administration’s top China official never mentioned the TRA, saying only that the U.S. reaction “would depend on the circumstances.”

Lee also treaded lightly when evaluating Clinton’s visit to Beijing two years later. In his 1992 campaign, Clinton had excoriated President George H.W. Bush  for “coddling dictators and the butchers of Beijing” after Tiananmen. Yet, during his meeting with Jiang Zemin in 1998, Clinton acceded to China’s demands and, as Lee wrote, “did make remarks that included the three noes policy”: no two Chinas, no independent Taiwan, and no Taiwan membership in most international organizations.

Lee granted Clinton a partial pass by saying that at least “he did not commit it to a written statement.” He avoided directly criticizing Clinton for what many saw as an erosion of American support for Taiwan, and a weakening of its position vis-à-vis China. Instead, in his book, Lee quoted others who were less charitable to Clinton’s China-Taiwan policies.

He informed his readers that James Lilley, U.S. ambassador to China in the George W. Bush administration, “once compared Clinton’s ambiguous attitude to a ‘juvenile diplomacy.’”  Lee also related an interview he had with a Japanese professor who warned that Clinton’s “three noes policy could threaten the existence of Taiwan.”

Lee, instead, took comfort in congressional support for Taiwan: “After his return home, Clinton was criticized by Congress, which demanded an explanation, and a China debate ensued. These procedures of U.S. foreign policy were exactly what I had expected, and to me they demonstrated the candor and soundness of American diplomacy.”

Lee told his Japanese interviewer “there was no need to criticize Clinton, for Washington did not change anything of vital importance.” Despite the backward steps in Clinton’s Taiwan policy, Lee tried to see the bright side: “Even when Washington indicates no support for Taiwan, it does not mean it opposes the policies held by Taipei.”

Notwithstanding the damage to U.S.-Taiwan relations under Clinton, the bottom line for this magnanimous democratic giant was: “Basically, I have confidence in the United States.”

How then should Washington honor the man who did so much to pursue Taiwan’s democratic development and to foster strong U.S.-Taiwan relations? And, what message should be sent to Beijing regarding the current state of U.S.-Taiwan and U.S.-China relations?

President Tsai Ing-wen shares Lee’s capacity for firm but tempered resistance to China’s pressures, while advancing Taiwan’s democratic cause. Both took ordinary actions with predictable extraordinary consequences. Lee attended his Cornell reunion; Tsai telephoned to congratulate President-elect Donald Trump. Each of those normal, civilized acts enraged the abnormal, vengeful communist regime.

A call from President Trump to President Tsai to offer condolences on the passing of President Lee would be a gracious gesture and a welcome expression of support to America’s loyal security partner and fellow democracy during fraught times. He could thank her for Taiwan’s valiant efforts to prevent the global pandemic in the face of Beijing’s malign behavior and the World Health Organization’s evident complicity. 

China’s Xi Jinping will complain about not being consulted as he was assured after the first Trump-Tsai conversation. He should be reminded of Beijing’s broken promises to enforce sanctions against North Korea; not to militarize the South China Sea; to implement its Phase 1 trade obligations; to stop stealing intellectual property; to cooperate honestly on the pandemic; and so on. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it recently, Washington’s approach to Beijing henceforth will be “distrust, and verify.”

To put an exclamation mark on his call, and as a special tribute to Lee’s memory, the president should summon the USS Nimitz, which played such an important role at a pivotal point in Lee’s life and Taiwan’s democratic transition 25 years ago. Lee is sadly gone, but the Nimitz still steams, more robust than ever.

Presently patrolling the South China Sea, it should return to the Taiwan Strait and reaffirm America’s commitment to Taiwan’s democratic security and to the freedom of the seas. It would vindicate Lee’s simple but eloquent faith: “Basically, I have confidence in the United States.”

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.

Tags Cross-Strait relations Donald Trump Lee Teng-hui Mike Pompeo One-China policy Tsai Ing-Wen us-taiwan relations USS Nimitz

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