COLUMN ONE : How Taipei Outwitted U.S. Policy : When Washington denied it recognition, Taiwan wooed Congress and the statehouses. One friendship that paid off: its ties with an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.


It was Taiwan's National Day--Oct. 10, 1985--and the Nationalist government was celebrating the annual holiday with a rally and parade in which goose-stepping troops marched through Taipei's Presidential Square.

As usual, the U.S. government was conspicuously absent. No one from the White House or State and Defense departments had set foot on Taiwanese soil since 1979, when the United States established diplomatic relations with China's Communist government in Beijing and cut off official ties with Taiwan.

Yet there were two prominent U.S. politicians at the parade as special guests of the government: the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, and the governor of Virginia, Charles S. Robb.

"Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, U.S.A., said it was apparent to see from the parade that Chinese people here and abroad support the government of the Republic of China [Taiwan]," reported the Central News Agency, Taiwan's wire service.

A decade later, Taiwan's years of careful, patient hospitality and relentless courtship of U.S. governors and Congress members are paying off, with huge results.

President Lee Teng-hui is on a groundbreaking four-day private tour of the United States--a visit that, until recently, the U.S. government had refused to permit. It is the first trip ever by a Taiwanese president here.

The Clinton Administration's decision to alter 16 years of official U.S. policy by allowing Lee's visit was made in a White House meeting May 18.

And the two key actors at that session were those veterans of gubernatorial visits to Taipei: Clinton, now President of the United States, and Robb, a U.S. senator and leader of a group of centrist Democrats in Congress pushing to change Taiwan policy.

"The President and Hillary and Lynda [Robb] and I had been to Taiwan at least once together as governors, and he was sympathetic to my suggestion [to grant Lee a visa]," Robb said in an interview. He said the White House meeting helped Clinton overcome the "institutional inertia" of U.S. foreign policy agencies seeking to block Lee's trip to attend his reunion at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he received a doctorate in agricultural economics in 1968.

Clinton's 1985 trip was one of at least four he made to Taiwan as governor--more visits than he made to any other nation. Indeed, at least before his presidential campaign began, he may well have visited Taiwan more often than he toured New Hampshire.

"Taiwan has the best-oiled diplomatic machine in the world. They spot up-and-coming politicians in the United States and they court them," observed Charles W. Freeman Jr., distinguished fellow of the U.S. Institute of Peace and former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Over the years, Taiwan has welcomed literally hundreds of governors and members of Congress, wining and dining them and giving them audiences with top government leaders. As governor of Arkansas, for example, Clinton was given an audience with then-President Chiang Ching-kuo.

Even congressional staff members are treated royally--for they not only give advice to members of Congress, but help write the legislation that can affect Taiwan's future. Staff members who have visited Taiwan, even briefly, say that, when they leave, they are often given gifts, including a memento book with pictures of them shaking hands with top officials.

Over time, Taiwan was able to develop strong enough ties to become the United States' fifth-largest trading partner.

Taiwan's embrace of Clinton and other U.S. politicians was not the only factor underlying the recent policy reversal.

* Lee's visit here is also the result of a determined and surprisingly successful lobbying campaign, in which a research group affiliated with the Nationalist government hired a Washington firm for $4.5 million over three years to help upgrade Taiwan's image and standing in the United States.

* The decision is an outgrowth of Taiwan's change from an authoritarian, one-party state to a democracy--and of China's continuing political repression following the 1989 crackdown on demonstrations in Beijing's Tian An Men Square.

* And it is yet another byproduct of the end of the Cold War: The United States does not need China as a strategic partner today as much as it did when the Soviet Union existed.

"Sure, there was some special-interest lobbying [in Congress] on this issue," said one senior Clinton Administration official. "But the bottom-line question is, why was there receptivity to the lobbying? And the answer is the contrast between Taiwan's image in this country and China's image."

From the end of China's civil war in 1949 until 1978, the United States recognized the Nationalist regime in Taipei as the legitimate government for all of China. But the Jimmy Carter Administration in December, 1978, bowed to the reality that the Communist regime in Beijing was fully in control of the country, and agreed to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China and cut off official ties with Taiwan beginning in 1979.

Over the years, Taiwan's long courtship of grass-roots politicians created a wide disparity between attitudes in Congress and the statehouses, where Taiwan enjoyed considerable support, and in the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus, where officials felt responsible for preserving ties with China.

After the break-off of ties, top officials of the State and Defense departments and the National Security Council began to lose contact with Taiwan.

The most recent visit to the island by any senior U.S. official involved in foreign policy was the December, 1978, trip by Warren Christopher, then deputy secretary of state. He was sent to Taipei to soothe feelings about the impending rupture of diplomatic relations. Angry Taiwanese threw eggs at his car.

Taiwan countered immediately with a campaign to win the support of local and state officials throughout the United States. Taiwan's unofficial representatives in the United States urged local governments to fly the flag of the Republic of China, and encouraged state governments to issue diplomatic plates to the cars of Taiwan officials.

Clinton led the first Arkansas trade mission to Taiwan in 1979, the year diplomatic ties were broken off. As leader of the National Governors Assn., he gave the keynote speech to the 1986 conference of the U.S.-Republic of China Economic Council in Taipei. He opened an Arkansas trade office in Taipei's World Trade Center in 1988.

Taiwan responded in kind by steering purchases to states whose governors had visited.

"Both Clinton and Robb told [the Taiwan wire service] that the Republic of China has purchased large quantities of grains and timber from their states in recent years," the service said in 1985. The head of Taiwan's Houston office visited Little Rock to take part in one of Clinton's gubernatorial inaugurations.

Clinton is not the first governor friendly to Taiwan to reach the Oval Office. During his years in California, President Ronald Reagan had been an even stronger supporter of the Nationalist government.

But Reagan came to the White House during the Cold War. After two years of tension between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan policy, his Administration decided to put the issue on the back burner.

The Clinton Administration has followed the opposite path. At the outset, it mostly ignored Taiwan, ordering an internal policy review that lasted 18 months and produced no major changes.

But in the spring of 1994, Lee's plane stopped in Hawaii during a trip to Central America. Since 1979, no president of Taiwan had even had his plane touch down in the United States.

The Hawaii stopover was one part of a much broader effort to upgrade Taiwan's international contacts and status. Two months earlier, in a Southeast Asian tour branded "vacation diplomacy," the Taiwanese president met with Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos at Subic Bay and Indonesian President Suharto in Bali. He also played golf in Phuket, Thailand, with the Thai deputy prime minister.

"They [Taiwan officials] treated this as a strategic campaign and laid the basis very skillfully," says Freeman.

For his Hawaii stopover, Lee had asked permission to spend the night in Honolulu and play golf. The State Department thought that was going too far and said that Lee could only spend a few hours on the ground. Furious, he refused even to get off his plane.

A few weeks later, the research group associated with Lee's ruling party hired Cassidy & Associates, the Washington lobbying firm, to push more aggressively for changes in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

Lee "was upset with what had happened in Hawaii," explained a U.S. source involved in the lobbying operation. "Taiwan was being treated [in Washington] like a long-lost relative, dismissed and irrelevant."

The idea was to broaden the political constituencies supporting Taiwan in Washington. "The way they [Taiwan officials] had operated for years in this town was to take right-wing Republicans out for dinner," the lobbying source said.

Cassidy had close ties to the Democratic Party. The firm's ranks included, for example, Jody Powell, formerly President Carter's spokesman. "Our strategy a year ago was to have Democratic Leadership Council senators [moderate Democrats], the guys Clinton needs to govern, tell him it's time to change the Taiwan policy," the lobbying source said.

The firm assigned its new Taiwan account to Gerald Warburg, once a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff aide to former Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).

Warburg had just finished a lobbying campaign on behalf of U.S. business interests seeking to have lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam.

The lobbyists' campaign for Taipei was built around a simple anti-Communist message of the sort that many Democrats avoided during the Cold War: Taiwan is democratic and China is a Communist regime, they said. How can you deny Lee even the right to visit this country?

Last November, the campaign got a huge, unexpected boost when the Republican landslide in Congress brought to power many leaders sympathetic to Taiwan. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), for example, announced that he would support Taiwan's admission to the United Nations.

By early this year, a powerful pro-Taiwan coalition was building in Congress. When Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord testified in the House early this year on overall U.S. policy toward Asia, he was jolted. Virtually every member of Congress at the hearing asked or challenged him about U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

In April, the House began moving a non-binding resolution that called on the Clinton Administration to let Lee attend his Cornell reunion. Administration officials sought to derail the bill in committee, but they failed. The resolution passed the House, 360-0, and then the Senate, 97-1. One senior Administration official called the vote margins "staggering."

By this time, the Administration was desperate to compromise. Christopher, now secretary of state, "was of the view that this was not something we could confront Congress on," a State Department official said. Christopher had much bigger worries than Taiwan: The entire budget and organization of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus was in trouble on Capitol Hill.

Moreover, Christopher and other officials realized that, if challenged, Congress could go much further on Taiwan. Congress was beginning to move much tougher legislation that would not only require Lee's visit but amend the massive Taiwan Relations Act, the law that has been part of the basic framework governing U.S. relations with Taiwan and China since 1979. Any change in that law could have even more seriously affected Washington's relations with the government in Beijing.

As an alternative to the Cornell visit, U.S. officials proposed a new solution. They suggested that they would grant Lee a visa for a trip to Hawaii, one on which he might not only play golf but take part in some private academic exchanges.

In other words, Administration officials were offering considerably more than the quick overnight stop that they had rejected in 1994. The Hawaii compromise was thought to be somewhat more acceptable to China because it would have kept Lee out of the continental United States and cities such as Los Angeles.

But with Congress solidly behind them, Taiwan officials turned down the Administration's offer, deciding instead to go all-out for the Cornell trip. "The old Taiwan would have said, 'Thank you very much,' " one source familiar with the Taiwan deliberations said. "The new Taiwan said: '[Expletive] you.' "

On May 18, Clinton sat down at the White House with a small group of moderate senators allied with the Democratic Leadership Council: Robb and Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John B. Breaux of Louisiana.

The session was designed to cover larger, more general issues, such as the budget, the economy and the Administration's disputes with Congress over foreign policy. But once it began, Robb complained that the Administration was still refusing to grant Lee a visa to visit Cornell.

Clinton teased Robb about their old days in Taiwan together. "He still kids me about his capacity exceeding mine as to the number of toasts [at a banquet in Taiwan]," Robb said. "There was nothing improper about it. His recollection is that I may not have participated in every toast."

By the end of the May 18 meeting, the President signaled that he was ready to grant the Taiwanese president a visa. The next day, reversing 16 years of policy, the White House formally gave the go-ahead for Lee's trip.

* TAIWAN'S LEE IN L.A.: President's U.S. visit begins with a stop in Los Angeles. B1



Taiwan, with a population of 21 million, is now the fifth-largest trading partner of the United States and the 19th-largest economy in the world. Its gross national product is expected to reach $12,944 per capita this year. Of its population, at least 85% are ethnic Taiwanese, mostly descendants of refugees from the area that is now China's Fujian province who came to the island 350 years ago. The rest are "mainlanders" who fled to Taiwan during and after China's long civil war, in which Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists were defeated by Mao Tse-tung's Communist forces in 1949.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World