The Washington Diplomat / October 2002
By Larry Luxner
Imagine a fervently pro-American nation that prides itself on its democracy, human rights, free trade and economic prosperity, yet is denied an embassy in Washington and sees UN membership as a nearly impossible dream.
Such is the peculiar fate of the Republic of China on Taiwan, America's eighth-largest trading partner and the world's third-largest exporter of IT products. Last year, Taiwan's 22.4 million people spent nearly as much on U.S. products as did its archrival, the People's Republic of China, with 1.3 billion inhabitants.
"The PRC has tried hard to undercut our position in the international community," says Chien-Jen Chen, Taiwan's top diplomat in the United States. "They've tried to isolate us and block us from joining international organizations or participating in international activities. But we don't want to be isolated or sidelined."
Chen -- a likeable, easygoing man whose friends and colleagues call him "CJ" -- heads the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington. This gleaming five-story, $16 million complex on Wisconsin Avenue, about two blocks from the Van Ness metro station, is the closest thing Taiwan has to an embassy here.
Ironically, the Taiwanese government still owns Twin Oaks, a 26-room mansion that served as the official residence of nine ROC ambassadors between 1937 and 1978. The mansion and the 17.6 acres of land it lies on comprise the largest privately owned estate in Washington.
Chen's counterpart in Taipei is Douglas Paal, director of the Arlington-based American Institute in Taiwan; both countries have maintained informal relations through these two offices since President Carter formalized relations with the PRC and ended recognition of Taiwan in 1979.
"I was here when that happened," said Chen, 62, in a lengthy interview. "We were extremely disappointed and saddened that the U.S. government decided to switch diplomatic recognition [to Beijing]. On the other hand, we know that each country has its own interests and that sometimes, countries may have differences. This is the reality, and everybody knows why."
The historical animosity existing between the two Chinas has lasted for just over half a century. When communists took control of the Chinese mainland in 1949 and established the PRC, the Republic of China government led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. Since then, the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have been governed as separate territories. Martial law in Taiwan ended in 1987, and in 1996, the people of Taiwan held their first direct presidential election.
In January 2002, Taiwan was admitted into the World Trade Organization. The ROC now has the world's 16th-largest economy, based on 2000 GNP rankings by the World Bank, and boasts the world's third-largest foreign-exchange reserves.
Yet Beijing still regards self-ruled, democratic Taiwan as part of China. The communist government insists that the island's leaders should not be allowed the diplomatic privileges accorded to other international leaders. And the reality Chen speaks of is that Washington has no interest in upsetting China, the world's most populous nation.
"I don't know about their side, but we want to be reasonable and positive," he said. "This is why in the last two years, our government has been working hard to resume dialogue between Taipei and Beijing. From the very beginning, our president, Chen Shui-bian, expressed goodwill and sincerity and we'd like to see that dialogue resumed."
As head of TECRO, Chen oversees 210 people working in 10 divisions covering everything from economics to military procurement.
"Besides the name, we are like any other embassy in Washington," says Chen. "Most people believe that the current relationship under President Bush between Taiwan and the United States is the best since 1979. You can cite all sorts of statistics, but more importantly you can feel it. We treat each other as friends, we have very good communications, we have mutual trust, and we try to avoid causing problems."
Chen began his first tour of duty in Washington in 1971, the year before President Nixon made his historic visit to Beijing. Appointed as a third secretary, he was promoted to first secretary and in 1979, following the rupture in U.S.-Taiwan relations, was named director of public affairs for the U.S. office of the Coordination Council for North American Affairs, TECRO's predecessor organization.
In 1982, Chen returned to Washington as an adviser to CCNAA, and later as deputy representative, a job he held for seven years. In 1989, Chen was appointed vice-minister of Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in the early 1990s represented his party, the Kuomintang (KMT) in the Taiwanese legislature.
Returning to the Foreign Service in 1996, Chen eventually became director-general of the Government Information Office -- serving as the government's official spokesman -- before becoming the country's foreign minister and finally envoy to the United States.
"I love Washington. This is a great capital," says Chen, who is married to the former Yolanda Ho, a renowned designer in Taiwan's textile and apparel industry. "I tell my junior colleagues that Washington is like a big school. There's so much to learn, and you never graduate. Secondly, it's like a big stage where you see people perform, and the people watch you. Finally, Washington is like a big market. If you have a good commodity, you can sell. Otherwise, nobody buys it."
Is anybody buying what Taiwan has to offer?
Obviously, yes, if one considers the $51 billion in bilateral trade recorded last year. That's down from the $64 billion achieved in 2000, which Chen attributes to "the world economic situation."
"But this year, it has been picking up, and I'm pretty confident that bilateral trade will continue to grow," said the diplomat, noting that Taiwan's GNP today exceeds $320 billion. That translates into per-capita income of around $13,000 -- compared to less than $1,000 for mainland China. In terms of per-capita spending, Taiwan is already the world's top buyer of American agricultural products, and is now pushing for a U.S.-Taiwan free-trade agreement that could expand bilateral economic links even further.
For years, Taiwan has attempted to use its vast economic resources to curry favor with poor countries in the hope of establishing formal diplomatic ties. This so-called "dollar diplomacy" has enjoyed its most visible success in Central America, where Taiwan is recognized by all six Spanish-speaking republics.
"I was the one who helped resume diplomatic relations with Nicaragua when Violeta Chamorro came into power in 1990," said Chen, who fondly recalls singing "Besame Mucho" and "Solamente Una Vez" as the Nicaraguan president played piano at her home in Managua.
Yet for all its efforts, only one South American country -- staunchly anti-communist Paraguay -- recognizes Taiwan instead of the PRC. And in Europe, only the Holy See has ties with Taipei. Of the 27 countries with which Taiwan enjoys full diplomatic relations, 14 are in Latin America or the Caribbean, eight are in Africa and four are in the South Pacific.
Last month, Taiwan suffered a minor diplomatic setback when Nauru -- a tiny Pacific island of only 10,000 inhabitants -- switched allegiances from Taipei to Beijing after 22 years. The PRC reportedly offered Nauru $130 million to drop its links with Taiwan.
Asked if this was a big deal, Chen answered: "I don't think so. We would love to have diplomatic ties with all countries. But if Nauru, for its own reasons, feels that a free and democratic country like Taiwan is not a friend they want, there's not much we can do."
Chen, who was born in the Chinese city of Chungking and left for Taiwan at the age of 8, has never been back to the mainland.
"If it's appropriate from our government's point of view, I would certainly like to go," he said. In the meantime, Chen has traveled to 75 other countries, including every single one with which Taiwan has diplomatic relations.
Yet he disputes the widely accepted notion that Taiwan and its adversary, the PRC, are locked in a battle to "buy" the friendship of third countries with offers of economic assistance.
"I don't want to use money diplomacy to describe these relationships," he said. "According to UN standards, each country should use 0.7% of its GNP to offer developing countries so-called foreign aid. Actually, Taiwan uses only 0.14%. Foreign assistance is not a big percentage of our GNP. Many people who are knowledgeable about international affairs would like to see our government do more."
Taiwan's recent aid projects include relief supplies for Afghan refugees, AIDS prevention in Africa, and the dispatch of a 30-member rescue team following earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001.
Even so, there's little doubt Chen feels left out of Washington's diplomatic circle. He has no access to State Department officials, and is prohibited by his own government from talking too much with his counterparts from the PRC.
"We have no contact whatsoever with the Chinese Embassy," says Chen. "There have been occasions where junior colleagues have gone to the same functions as their people do. We have no problem shaking hands and chatting a little. But we have nothing to talk about. There isn't really much we can do here. We have to leave this to our governments in Taipei and Beijing."
Overshadowing the diplomatic rivalry between the two Chinas is the military one. Chen says the ROC itself is threatened by Beijing's often belligerent attitude toward the island, which it considers a breakaway province of China.
According to the diplomat, mainland China has deployed at least 400 missiles across the Taiwan Strait, and is increasing this number by 50 each year. He said Beijing has also been buying advanced destroyers and jet fighters from the Russians, and has boosted its military budget by over 17% annually in the last two years.
"So militarily, they pose a serious threat to the people of Taiwan," he said. "On the other hand, they refuse to resume dialogue with us, unless we accept their version of a one-China policy."
He says the experiences of Hong Kong, a British colony which reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and Macau, a Portuguese colony which reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1999, are not relevant to Taiwan for various reasons.
"Hong Kong and Macau used to be colonies. Taiwan is not a colony," he pointed out. "Hong Kong and Macau do not have their own constitutions. We have our own constitution. Hong Kong and Macau do not have their own defense forces. We do. Most importantly, Hong Kong and Macau did not have a choice. We do have a choice."
And if given a choice, according to recent surveys, nearly 80% of Taiwan's people would choose the status quo, slightly over 10% would support reunification with mainland China, and just over 10% would support independence.
"We do not exclude the possibility of reunification," he said. "But we don't exclude other possibilities either. What we want to see is something our people can accept, and at present, that's the status quo."
Earlier this year, President Chen lent his support to the idea of a referendum to decide Taiwan's political status. In an Aug. 3 speech, he stated that "Taiwan is our country, and our country cannot be bullied, downgraded, marginalized nor treated as a local government. Taiwan is not a part of any other country, nor is it a local government or province of another country. Taiwan can never be another Hong Kong or Macau, because it has always been a sovereign state."
The president further stated that if China continues to presure the people of Taiwan to change the status quo, "then the people of Taiwan should have the right to express their will through a referendum for the sake of self-defense and self-protection in response to such a challenge."
But Chen says the president's remarks have been taken out of context, and that many people have misinterpreted them as a change in Taiwan's policy towards its adversary.
"The president did not say, 'let's have a referendum.' He merely said we should consider one, because the PRC has been advocating that there's one China, and that the PRC is the sole legitimate representative of China," Chen told The Washington Diplomat. "In addition, Beijing advocates the so-called 'one country, two systems' policy and is pressuring us to accept this. But we know that Taiwan is now a democracy. The future of Taiwan has to be decided by its people. No single person or political leader can decide this."
Chen added: "Communist China is not a democracy. If they didn't try so hard to impose their version of 'one country, two systems,' then the president would not have said those things."
Despite the icy relations between the two Chinas, Chen said he's hopeful the stalemate won't last too much longer.
"From 1949 up to 1987, there was no contact whatsoever between the two governments or between the two peoples," he said. "On Nov. 2, 1987, we started letting people travel to the mainland for humanitarian reasons. Since then, there have been many people-to-people contacts, and our investments on the mainland have exceeded $70 billion. From 1987 until today, more than 13 million trips have been made by Taiwanese to the mainland."
But relations won't improve dramatically, says Chen, until mainland China gives up communism and embraces democracy as enthusiastically as it has embraced free markets.
"At the end of World War II, there were 25 communist countries. Now at most there are four: the PRC, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba. Communism has been collapsing. It's a fact. Even those remaining communist countries have been changing quite rapidly. So I don't think communism can continue. And if one day our economic and political systems are similar, it would be so much easier for our two peoples to understand each other."