- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

One of the most obvious elements of statehood is the power to determine who visits one's country. China seems to believe that it should make that decision not only for itself, but for other nations as well. Beijing has confiscated thousands of copies of "The Clinton Years," a new book that was shipped to the city of Schenzen for binding, because it contains a photo of Tibet's Dalai Lama meeting with President Clinton during the former's 1994 trip to America.

Although there may not be much Washington can do about "The Clinton Years," the administration's obsequiousness is ingrained. Most recently, the State Department went out of its way to accommodate China's criticism of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's brief stopover in Los Angeles.

Taiwan is isolated, but not alone. Twenty-nine nations still recognize the Republic of China, and President Chen was traveling to Central America to visit some of Taiwan's friends. That meant a stop in Los Angeles.

This naturally upset Beijing, which claims the island state (like Tibet) as its own. Apparently no Taiwanese at least, no Taiwanese official of note is supposed to visit America, even for 16 hours, until Taipei accepts China's sovereignty.

The People's Republic of China made much the same argument five years ago, when President Lee Teng-hui attended a reunion at Cornell University, his alma mater. The administration demonstrated the natural position of its lips by promising to deny Mr. Lee's visa application. Congressional protests led the administration to reverse course, all the while assuring Beijing that Mr. Lee's visit was "private."

On President Clinton's 1998 visit to Beijing, he uttered his famous "three nos" no U.S. support for a two-China policy, Taiwan's independence, or even Taipei's membership in international organizations for which statehood is required.

Now comes Mr. Chen's visit, which, Beijing declared could "severely" damage Sino-American relations. Although the administration decided not to declare the nation which claims to lead the "free world" off-limits to the head of state of a vibrant capitalist democracy, it did go out of its way to quarantine him. It reportedly informed Mr. Chen that he could expect future visas only if he kept this trip totally private. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher broke through the U.S. cordon and met with Mr. Chen at the latter's hotel. Otherwise, Mr. Chen might as well have landed in Phnom Penh or Cairo as in Los Angeles.

Good relations with the PRC are important. It is the world's most populous state; it could eventually generate the globe's biggest economy. Today, at least, it is the only conceivable peer competitor to America, and it sits in the midst of the world's most dynamic economies.

Thus, Washington should encourage the PRC to move in a more liberal direction. Particularly important is approving Permanent Normal Trading Relations, in order to encourage the sort of private cultural and economic ties that make a freer, more democratic China more likely.

Equally important, America should neither recognize nor defend the ROC. In fact, a century of independent existence, topped with creation of a genuinely free society, entitles the Taiwanese to chart their own future. But prudence requires the United States to exercise caution in backing that right.

That Beijing cares passionately, requires Washington policy-makers to take seriously the possibility that China is willing to use force against Taiwan, unlikely to treat American threats to intervene seriously, and ready to take what Washington would consider to be irrational risks to "recover" Taiwan.

That means recognition, and particularly a defense guarantee, cannot be offered in the belief that they represent cheap deterrence, a bluff that will never be called. To the contrary, such steps have a disturbing potential of leading to war between America and China, a nuclear-armed state.

The common belief that the Seventh Fleet will steam to Taiwan's rescue in any conflict not only encourages Taipei officials to be more assertive, but caused some voters to support Mr. Chen. On election eve in March, one told The Washington Times, "Beijing will not resort to force carelessly" since the U.S. backed Taiwan.

Before risking war, the United States must decide that the interest at stake is vital, and there is no alternative means to achieve the end. Such a determination requires a serious debate rather than casual political posturing

Just as the consequences of defending Taiwan are potentially grave, so are those of appeasing the PRC. China's appetite for concessions is endless. Groveling before Beijing undercuts any guarantees that Washington might extend, risking a repeat of British Foreign Minister Edward Gray's performance before World War I, which, by misleading both France and Germany, caused both to be more aggressive.

Washington must decide on its policy towards China and Taiwan, and clearly communicate that policy to both of them. Beijing cannot dictate who visits America, nor when they do so. Friendship towards the PRC does not require the strategic placement of the administration's lips on Beijing's boots or anything else.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute

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