The free world is observing the passing of Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), Taiwan’s first democratically elected president. He was widely considered “the father of Taiwan’s democracy.”
Designated by semi-dictator Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), son of full-bore dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), as vice president in 1984, Lee became president in 1988 on Chiang Ching-kuo’s death.
Almost immediately, he began dismantling the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) autocracy. He accelerated the move toward a representative government that began under Chiang Ching-kuo after years of bloody struggle with the freedom fighters who eventually became Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
Lee came to the world’s attention in 1995 when, as sitting Taiwan president, he attended his Cornell University reunion and applied for a visa to the US.
China’s communist government demanded that Washington deny the visa as a violation of Beijing’s “one China” principle.
The administration of then-US president Bill Clinton complied, but Lee, ever optimistic about the US, was not deterred from asking again. Taiwan’s many supporters in the US Congress were outraged by the visa denial, and the domestic political pressure caused the US Department of State to reverse its decision.
That sparked vituperation from Beijing, which launched a major naval exercise in the Taiwan Strait, including live-fire exercises and missiles fired toward Taiwan.
An alarmed Clinton administration responded by sending the USS Nimitz carrier strike force through the Taiwan Strait, the first such transit since then-US president Richard Nixon pulled the 7th Fleet out to meet Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) precondition for their 1972 meeting.
When Beijing complained, Washington “explained” that it was merely a weather diversion, not a strategic signal. That calmed the situation for a few months.
In March 1996, Lee ran as the KMT candidate in Taiwan’s first direct election for president.
To protest this expression of political autonomy, China again launched missiles across the Strait, and Clinton again called upon the Nimitz to deliver the US’ response, this time joined by the USS Independence.
However, none of that awesome naval air power entered the Strait because Beijing promised “a sea of fire” and threatened a missile attack on Los Angeles.
In his 1999 book The Road to Democracy: Taiwan’s Pursuit of Identity, Lee was generous in describing the second missile episode that ended with the US backing down.
He said it showed that in the face of Beijing’s missile tests, Washington “did not sit by silently, but took action to stand by” the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
However, when asked point-blank by Chinese officers how the US would respond to an attack on Taiwan, the Clinton administration’s top China official never mentioned the TRA, saying only that the US’ reaction “would depend on the circumstances.”
Lee also trod lightly when evaluating Clinton’s visit to Beijing two years later.
In his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton had excoriated then-US president George H.W. Bush for “coddling dictators and the butchers of Beijing” after Tiananmen. Yet, during his meeting with Jiang Zemin (江澤民) in 1998, Clinton acceded to China’s demands and, as Lee wrote, “did make remarks that included the three noes policy”: no “two Chinas,” no independent Taiwan and no Taiwan membership in most international organizations.
Lee granted Clinton a partial pass by saying that at least “he did not commit it to a written statement.”
He avoided directly criticizing Clinton for what many saw as an erosion of US support for Taiwan, and a weakening of its position vis-a-vis China. Instead, in his book, Lee quoted others who were less charitable to Clinton’s China-Taiwan policies.
He informed his readers that James Lilley, US ambassador to China in former US president George W. Bush’s administration, “once compared Clinton’s ambiguous attitude to a ‘juvenile diplomacy.’”
Lee also related an interview he had with a Japanese professor who warned that Clinton’s “three noes policy could threaten the existence of Taiwan.”
Instead, Lee took comfort in US congressional support for Taiwan: “After his return home, Clinton was criticized by Congress, which demanded an explanation, and a China debate ensued. These procedures of US foreign policy were exactly what I had expected, and to me they demonstrated the candor and soundness of American diplomacy.”
Lee told his Japanese interviewer that “there was no need to criticize Clinton, for Washington did not change anything of vital importance.”
Despite the backward steps in Clinton’s Taiwan policy, Lee tried to see the bright side: “Even when Washington indicates no support for Taiwan, it does not mean it opposes the policies held by Taipei.”
Notwithstanding the damage to Taiwan-US relations under Clinton, the bottom line for this magnanimous democratic giant was: “Basically, I have confidence in the United States.”
How then should Washington honor the man who did so much to pursue Taiwan’s democratic development and to foster strong Taiwan-US relations? What message should be sent to Beijing regarding the current state of Taiwan-US and US-China relations?
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) shares Lee’s capacity for firm but tempered resistance to China’s pressures, while advancing Taiwan’s democratic cause. Both took ordinary actions with predictable, extraordinary consequences. Lee attended his Cornell reunion; Tsai telephoned to congratulate then-US president elect Donald Trump. Each of those normal, civilized acts enraged the abnormal, vengeful communist regime.
A call from President Trump to Tsai to offer condolences on the passing of Lee would be a gracious gesture and a welcome expression of support to US’ loyal security partner and fellow democracy during fraught times. He could thank her for Taiwan’s valiant efforts to prevent the global pandemic in the face of Beijing’s malign behavior and the WHO’s evident complicity.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) would complain about not being consulted as he was assured after the first Trump-Tsai conversation.
He should be reminded of Beijing’s broken promises to enforce sanctions against North Korea, not to militarize the South China Sea, to implement its “phase one” trade obligations, to stop stealing intellectual property, to cooperate honestly on the pandemic and so on.
As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it recently, Washington’s approach to Beijing henceforth would be “distrust, and verify.”
To put an exclamation mark on his call, and as a special tribute to Lee’s memory, Trump should summon the Nimitz, which played such an important role at a pivotal point in Lee’s life and Taiwan’s democratic transition 25 years ago. Lee is sadly gone, but the Nimitz still steams, more robust than ever.
Presently patrolling the South China Sea, it should return to the Taiwan Strait and reaffirm the US’ commitment to Taiwan’s democratic security and to the freedom of the seas.
It would vindicate Lee’s simple but eloquent faith: “Basically, I have confidence in the United States.”
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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