Hope blooms for Taiwan

For those who are anxious about China-Taiwan relations in the wake of Chen Shui-ban’s victory in Taiwan’s recent presidential elections, James Lilley had one piece of advice: Calm down.

Lilley, who served as U.S. ambassador to China from 1989 to 1991 and is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, gave this advice during an April 17 lecture in which he gave his views about the future of U.S.-China and China-Taiwan relations.

On the latter, Lilley was cautiously optimistic. Prospects for agreement on the issue of reunification are actually better with Chen in office, he said, but first, the mainland Chinese leadership must realize this.

“I tell my friends in China, ‘You won, too. Why don’t you declare victory and go home?’” he told the Logan Hall audience. “Chen Shui-ban has moved to the center,” away from his pro-independence position, “and your nemesis Lee Teng-hui is gone — you don’t have him to kick around anymore.”

That Nixonian phrase led him to compare the new Taiwanese president to Nixon himself, calling Chen “the guy with whom [Beijing] can make a deal.”

Lilley noted that the main interests of the two parties are not necessarily in conflict.

China, he said, is mainly concerned with sovereignty and unity, while Taiwan wants security and real freedom.

Using the negotiations that led to Taiwan’s joining the Asian Development Bank in the late 1980s as an example, Lilley noted that it is possible to work out arrangements that satisfy all four of these concerns.

As for what the United States could do to help things along, Lilley suggested that it would be best for us to do nothing. “There is creative thinking going on,” he said. “Let the hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend.”

But at the same time, the United States should neither dismiss China’s bellicose rhetoric out of hand nor overreact to it. Continued arms sales to Taiwan are needed to provide psychological security, he said, but “making arms a symbol of American macho is disruptive. Subtlety works better.”

Lilley also said that the United States should continue emphasizing trade and economics in its dealings with China rather than trying to change Chinese behavior overtly.


Originally published on May 4, 2000