- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The visit to the United States this week by Chinese President Hu Jintao will shine a spotlight on a relationship that may well help to define this new century. The U.S.-China relationship covers a broad range of interests, some shared, others in contention. The president has characterized the relationship, aptly, as good but complex.

What makes it particularly complex, though, is that there is a third party at the core of the relationship: Taiwan. Successive American presidents since the massacre at Tiananmen Square have sought to establish broader and deeper relations with China without weakening the U.S. commitment to Taiwan.

U.S. diplomacy, though, now is based upon an unwavering commitment to democracy and freedom, which would seem to complicate the matter. Taiwan is democratic and free. China is another matter.

The complexity of the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationships is the result of decades of diplomatic construction. Exquisite diplomatic nuance, refined over nearly three decades, defines the U.S. formal diplomatic relationship with China, just as it protects our pledges to Taiwan.

But diplomatic nuance risks obscuring U.S. support for democracy and freedom. Lacking is an overarching posture that may make it easier to embrace the nuances without losing sight of our ideals. Indeed, a posture of simple respect might serve U.S. objectives better than the complex diplomatic coda that characterizes the relationships now.

The U.S. has diplomatic relationships with the People’s Republic of China, and has no diplomatic relationships with Taiwan. In pursuing better ties with China, though, the U.S. must guard against being seen as insufficiently respectful of the institutions of democracy and of those people who pursue liberty, across the Strait in Taiwan.

An important assumption in the U.S. engagement of China is the belief the expanded economic freedom now allowed by the government inevitably will lead to expanded political freedom. This, in turn, will aid regional stability as an increasingly democratic China engages its neighbors through dialogue, compromise and respect for opposing views.

While there are some signs of greater political freedom at the village level, there are few indications it is taking root broadly across the country. China’s actions toward Hong Kong and Taiwan present a bleak picture, too. The relationships are devoid of any meaningful respect for the differences between Beijing and its freer, more democratic neighbors and compatriots.

Under the “one country, two systems” regime, the first test of Beijing’s support for democratization in Hong Kong came in April 2004 when Beijing’s National People’s Congress handed down a decision pre-empting local debate on Hong Kong electoral reform and ruled out universal suffrage in the 2007 Chief Executive and 2008 Legislative Council elections.

By December 2005, Chinese President Hu Jintao had refused to commit to any timetable for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, saying only any change must be gradual. Thus, just eight years after Britain ceded control of Hong Kong to China, Hong Kong residents can neither freely choose their leader nor elect all their legislature.

China has taken a consistently disrespectful view of Taiwan’s circumstances. China does not acknowledge Taiwan’s democratically elected leader. In fact, English language newspapers in China typically refer to Taiwan’s elected “President” Chen, in quote marks.

The U.S. can ameliorate Beijing’s edgy posture toward the institution of democracy by reiterating U.S. respect for those Chinese — including on Taiwan — who seek freedom and self-government.

Opportunities abound. Recently, several U.S. officials met informally with Ma Ying-jeou, duly elected mayor of Taipei and chairman of the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Like President Chen, Mayor Ma reflects the will of the Taiwan people who chose them as leaders. We should encourage more such interactions, at higher levels on both sides, to further illustrate our nation’s respect for the people of Taiwan. They have walked the path of freedom and self-government that the United States has lit for so many around the world.

As Chinese President Hu Jin Tao visits Washington, the diplomatic nuance and complexities that define the bilateral relationship will best be served if President Bush does what he does so well: reaffirms that the core of his foreign policy is respect for people seeking democracy everywhere — many inside China, to be sure, but certainly not excluding the democratic people of Taiwan.

Therese Shaheen is the immediate past chairman of the State Department American Institute of Taiwan. She is an adjunct fellow at The American Enterprise Institute and president of U.S. Asia Commercial Development Corp.

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