It seemed an unexceptional moment when Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) spoke against a resolution last year to overturn 17 years of American policy and allow Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to make an unofficial visit to the United States.
Johnston, reflecting long-standing U.S. policy that there is only one China and that its capital is Beijing, warned that Lee's visit, which was strongly opposed by the Clinton administration, risked damaging relations with China.
"I hesitate to muddy the waters and compromise our carefully crafted, delicate relations with the People's Republic of China by initiating vague policies of recognition of Taiwan's leaders," Johnston said.
In fact, however, Johnston's position was not only exceptional, it was unique.
The Senate passed the Taiwan-backed resolution by a vote of 97 to 1; the House approved an identical measure, 396 to 0. A week later, Clinton reversed his position and allowed Lee to travel to Ithaca, N.Y., to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University.
Taiwan and its many friends in Congress had steamrollered the president of the United States and eroded a policy that had been in place since President Carter recognized Beijing as the sole government of China in 1979.
The victory was the fruit of decades of assiduous--and extravagant--lobbying and public relations efforts in this country by China's island province, which refuses to recognize Beijing's hegemony.
Taiwan's campaign to sway American public and political opinion encompasses activities from the sponsorship of cultural events and scholarly research to the cultivation of elected officials--including, beginning in 1979, an obscure, newly elected governor of Arkansas by the name of Bill Clinton.
It may prove true that Taiwan offered $15 million or some other large sum to the Democratic Party--but both sides in the alleged transaction have denied it. Yet those who follow Taiwan's lobbying efforts find the idea of such a proposal consistent with its history and its willingness to spend large amounts to influence U.S. policy.
"Could [Taiwan's ruling party] afford a $15-million investment in the presidential campaign? Absolutely. They'd hardly miss the money," said a retired U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in Asia.
Taiwan's side of the story is hard to come by. Numerous phone calls to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, which serves as Taiwan's unofficial embassy here now that the United States does not recognize Taiwan as a country, were not returned.
There is no mystery about what Taiwan wants from the United States--closer political ties, weakened support for Beijing, more trade, a strengthened defense commitment and backing for membership in international organizations, such as the United Nations.
The list has barely changed since Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Party were riven from the mainland by Mao Tse-tung and the Communists in 1949.
Until 1972, the United States recognized Taiwan as the sole legitimate government of China. But in 1972 the Nixon administration, acknowledging history and trying to play Beijing against Moscow, accepted the Beijing government's position that there was one China and that Taiwan was a breakaway province. Formal diplomatic recognition of the Beijing government--and withdrawal of Taiwan's status--followed seven years later.
Since then, Taiwan and Americans of Taiwanese descent have spent tens of millions of dollars supporting scholars, think tanks, political candidates, opinion leaders and cultural institutions in a concerted effort to gain favor and change America's China policy.
"It's fairly obvious what Taiwan wants from the United States," said David Brown, senior associate at the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington, one of dozens of research organizations in the United States receiving funds from Taiwan.
"We are and have been for 40 years their principal patron. As much as generating political support, they are interested in arms sales, support for membership in [the World Trade Organization], access to our market, eventually U.N. membership."
To further their interests, the Taiwanese government and private-sector groups cultivate "every sector of American body politic," Brown said, with lavish free trips to Taiwan for journalists, academics, members of Congress and their staffs, local government officials, chambers of commerce and other civic organizations.
Their principal goodwill-building tool is money--lots of it--said a former top U.S. official with responsibility for Asia.
"Taiwan is a very insecure place, but it's also very rich," said this former official, who is now involved in a research program that receives generous funding from Taiwan. "Money and propaganda talk, and you work your connections endlessly. Spread your money . . . and the Americans like it."
This largess often comes with strings attached. Taiwan has eliminated or reduced its grants to a number of prominent universities whose research it found insufficiently sympathetic to Taiwan's cause.
In the past several years, Columbia University, Harvard University and the University of Michigan have lost grants from Taiwan because it objected to speakers at school-sponsored conferences or statements in academic studies.
Kenneth Lieberthal, the respected director of the Chinese studies program at the University of Michigan, said a $450,000 grant to the university was not renewed because he signed a report that urged the United States to temporarily limit the granting of visas to Taiwanese officials wishing to visit the United States.
"There was no appeal," Lieberthal said. "It was quite extraordinary."
Among the many beneficiaries of Taiwan's generosity are Washington lobbying and public relations firms.
The Taiwan Research Institute, a group closely associated with Lee's ruling party, pays the Cassidy Cos., a Washington public affairs counselor, $125,000 a month to monitor political and economic trends here. Cassidy is the parent firm of Powell-Tate, a public relations firm founded by Jody Powell, Carter's former press secretary.
The Taiwan account at Cassidy is handled by Gerald Warburg, the former top foreign policy advisor to ex-Sen. Alan Cranston of California.
Warburg declined to be interviewed for this story but, in a statement, the Cassidy firm said that "at no time" had its work involved advising Taiwan on political contributions.
Another former senior congressional aide who has attracted Taiwanese lobbying funds is Jeff Bergner, whose firm--Bergner, Bockorny, Clough & Brain--does work for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.
Bergner, a former aide to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), said his firm did "general representation work" for Taiwan.
A country or a company can spend limitless funds to buy goodwill, votes or influence in D.C.
Jim Riordan Anderson, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said Taiwan's approach has evolved over the last several years, from relatively subtle lobbying and public relations efforts to more explicit methods.
"There has been a big move by Taiwanese Americans, mostly private individuals and business interests, to contribute to domestic political campaigns," Anderson said. "The result is a significant impact on Congress."
And "for more than 20 years, Taiwan has made a very, very considerable effort to cultivate state and local elected officials," said a China expert at a prestigious Washington think tank. As Arkansas governor, Clinton visited Taiwan four times on trade missions.
"They didn't just get lucky and get Clinton," the China expert said. "They had dozens of governors and mayors who made multiple trips. It has been a major initiative, and they have done it very skillfully."
Times staff writers Jim Mann and David Willman contributed to this story.