At Large

No Room in America

The Bush administration is treating Taiwan no better than the Clinton administration did.

By 5.15.06

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Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian stopped by Libya on his way home from a visit to Latin America. He continued on to Indonesia before returning home. The U.S., in contrast, refused to allow him to even stay overnight on American soil.

The Bush administration is starting to act a lot like the Clinton administration.

The complexities surrounding the China-Taiwan dispute are well known. Throughout the Cold War both states claimed to be the single legitimate representative of a united China, even though the island had been forcibly separated from the mainland a century ago. Beijing continues to claim sovereignty over Taiwan, while a majority of the latter's population seems to prefer to forge a separate identity and, ultimately, create a independent nation.

However, for Taiwan -- formally the Republic of China -- to declare independence would risk war. No one knows how Beijing would react, but popular nationalist currents would merge with expansionist geopolitical calculations, likely forcing a hostile response. No one would win, least of all the U.S., if it found itself in a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed People's Republic of China.

Thus, there's good reason for Taipei to act responsibly whenever the PRC is concerned and equally good reason for Washington to discourage Taiwan from unduly provocative behavior. The question is not fairness, but prudence.

Here the two governments have come to disagree. Apparently for domestic political reasons as much as foreign policy objectives, President Chen has roiled cross-strait relations, and the U.S. has taken offense. (The issues, particularly constitutional reform and bureaucratic organization, would cause little reaction in any other democracy.) So to punish Taipei the Bush administration has stolen from the playbook of its predecessor.

In 1994 Washington denied Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui a visa to stop for a day in Hawaii. The Clinton administration treated newly elected President Chen the same way -- until the GOP Congress stepped in. Finally Washington stopped treating Taiwanese officials as pariahs.

Until now.

President Chen hoped to overnight in Houston, New York, or San Francisco on his way to Latin America. The administration said no -- he could refuel in Anchorage, but would have to immediately fly on. So he chose a different route.

Washington apparently denied Chen a visa for two reasons. It's not clear which is worse. One, coming on the heels of President Hu Jintao's non-state visit to America, was to win Chinese favor on other issues, including Iran and North Korea. This would be "extremely naive," as Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute points out. The PRC can't be bought this cheaply.

The other reason was to punish Chen and his political party. (Indeed, Washington ostentatiously welcomed Taipei's mayor, the head of the opposition Kuomintang, in March.) Whatever the Bush administration's preferences, the choice of Taiwan's leaders is up to the Taiwanese people. Indeed, attempts to meddle in the elections of other nations almost always backfire: the PRC has been no less ham-handed in its efforts to influence Taiwanese voters.

In any case, preventing people from visiting the U.S. for political purposes runs against our entire history. Libya, still run by a once terrorist-minded dictator, and Indonesia, a Muslim nation noted for anti-American sentiments and violent jihadists, exhibited more openness than did the U.S. Whatever Washington policymakers think of President Chen and his policies, they shouldn't prevent him from meeting with Americans who want to hear him.

Rather than attempting to micro-manage both cross-strait relations and Taiwanese politics, the U.S. should distance itself. Sell Taipei all of the arms that it wants, support its participation in international organizations such as the World Health Organization, and stay out of its internal affairs. In return, keep clear of Chinese and Taiwanese brickbats, especially if a fight breaks out. The administration's maladroit handling of the issue risks making conflict more rather than less likely.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).