The United States plans to send senior diplomats to Beijing and Taipei this week in an attempt to persuade China and Taiwan to cool the war of words that erupted between them 11 days ago.
Sources in Beijing, Taipei and Washington said that Kenneth Lieberthal, who handles Asian affairs for the National Security Council, and Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, are expected in Beijing on Thursday and Friday. Richard Bush, head of the American Institute, which represents the United States in Taiwan, will travel to Taipei this week.
The diplomatic initiatives illustrate the seriousness with which the Clinton administration views the latest confrontation between Taiwan and China, the most acrid since 1996. It also suggests that Washington may try to improve its floundering relationship with China by pressuring Taiwan to modify its stance while reassuring Beijing that U.S. policy supporting its position has not changed.
In Washington, President Clinton said that he had told Chinese President Jiang Zemin in a telephone conversation Sunday that the United States would have serious concerns about any abridgment of the peaceful dialogue that Beijing and Taipei have maintained in recent years, the Reuters news service reported.
U.S.-China ties sank to their lowest point in 10 years this spring following the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7 and the public airing of American allegations involving Chinese espionage, campaign donations and human rights violations. The visit of Lieberthal and Roth would mark the first time since the embassy bombing that U.S. officials have come to China to talk about issues other than that diplomatic disaster.
One U.S. diplomat said the mission was motivated by concern that events could fly out of control as they nearly did in 1996. Then, China was furious that Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui had become the first Taiwanese head of state to visit the United States since Washington shifted its recognition of Taipei as the legitimate Chinese government to Beijing in 1979. China carried out massive military exercises and fired missiles near Taiwan, and the United States responded by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.
"We understand there are big risks involved," said a U.S. diplomat, "but this is a very, very serious situation. We have to be engaged. Nobody wants to see a repeat of 1996."
According to American sources, it appears that the bulk of U.S. pressure will be on Taiwan's democratically elected president, who touched off the latest crisis when he announced that Taiwan wanted to establish "special state-to-state" relations with China, rather than conform to Beijing's view that Taiwan is a wayward Chinese province. Officials in Taiwan later expanded on Lee's announcement, saying they want to abandon the "one China" policy that has been the bedrock of Taipei-Beijing relations since tensions between the two eased in the 1980s--a policy that Washington has long supported.
The officials said that Taiwanese government officials--successors to the Chinese Nationalist leadership that was driven from China in 1949 following a civil war against communist forces--want to be treated as Beijing's equal in talks between the two. U.S. officials said that Bush and other envoys would attempt to persuade Lee to mitigate his statement. Lieberthal and Roth, meanwhile, will be charged with urging China not to use force to settle the issue and assuring Beijing that the Clinton administration sticks by its "one China" policy.
Former U.S. ambassador to China James Lilley said the crisis had provided the Clinton administration with a chance to improve relations with Beijing. "Taiwan has become a convenient whipping boy," Lilley said. "You had a badly deteriorating relationship between China and the United States, and Taiwan came along and gave the administration just what they needed to put the blame on Taiwan for the deterioration of the relationship."
President Lee made his first public remarks today since dropping his diplomatic bombshell on July 9 and they seemed milder by comparison. Lee said his call for "special state-to-state" relations was not a bid to break with China; rather it was a demand that China treat Taiwan as an equal and that China realize that it must democratize if it wants to reunite with Taiwan.
But Lee's demand that China treat Taiwan as an equal was rejected again by China's Foreign Ministry today. Spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said the Taiwan issue bore no comparison to such war-divided nations as North and South Korea or the former East and West Germany because Taiwan is "a part of China."
CAPTION: In first public remarks since changing policy, Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui says "state-to-state" relations means China should treat Taiwan as an equal.