LEE TENG-HUI came to town - to Ithaca, N.Y., that is - early this month and the folks in Beijing are enraged. The Chinese foreign minister called in the American ambassador and informed him that the feelings of 1.2 billion Chinese had been hurt. Warnings of severe damage to Chinese-American relations were issued.
This was one occasion when President Clinton, driven by enormous congressional pressure to grant Mr. Lee's visa, did not blink. Be assured that the Chinese will do something disagreeable to retaliate. But they are not likely to do anything to endanger their enormously profitable relationship with the United States.
Mr. Lee's usual residence is Taipei, Taiwan, where he is the democratically elected president of the Republic of China (ROC). His government is not recognized by either Beijing or Washington. He may not come to the US in his official capacity. Until the Ithaca visit, he had not been allowed in the US except to change planes.
Taiwan has enjoyed nominal independence for half a century, and there is growing sentiment among its residents for a declaration of independence. But the Beijing government has indicated it would resort to force, if necessary, to prevent Taiwan from reconstituting itself as the Republic of Taiwan. The authorities in Beijing fear that Lee's visit to the US will encourage the Taiwan independence movement.
When the defeated Chinese Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, escaped to Taiwan in 1949, American leaders considered them unworthy of further American assistance. Chiang's government had been undemocratic, ineffectual, and often brutal in repressing its own people. Angered by Mr. Chiang's oppressive rule, the Taiwanese revolted in February 1947 and were massacred by Nationalist troops. Washington was prepared to abandon Taiwan.
The Korean war saved Chiang and the residents of the island from communist conquest. The US was drawn back into the defense of the island, clearly a strategic asset, when it went to war against communism in Asia - and especially after the Beijing regime sent its forces into Korea where they bloodied American forces badly. In the years that followed, the US provided substantial military and economic aid to Taiwan and provided for its defense against attack from the mainland. From 1949 until 1979, the US refused to recognize the communist government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Instead, Washington maintained the fiction that the ROC on Taiwan was the legitimate government of all of China. In reality, the US practiced a "two Chinas" policy.
By the time Richard Nixon flew to Beijing in 1972 to improve relations with the PRC, the two Chinas policy and the future of Taiwan constituted the most difficult issues between the two countries. Nixon promised to abide by the Chinese contention that there was only one China. He indicated that in due course Washington would terminate the US-ROC mutual defense treaty, withdraw recognition of the ROC, and recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of China. Those steps were finally taken by the Carter administration in 1979.
A relationship between Taiwan and the US has continued since 1979 on a nominally unofficial basis. Military aid in the form of weapons sales has not stopped. Trade and investment have boomed as the Taiwan economy took off. The embassies and diplomatic relations exist as before in all but name. Beijing has not been happy. Nonetheless, throughout the 1980s and to this day, the PRC has found the relationship with the US too valuable to jeopardize over the Taiwan issue.
Over the years since 1979 the government of Taiwan has astonished observers by its gradual acceptance of political pluralism and democratic processes. Americans across the political spectrum have welcomed this development, and Lee has done much to advance the cause of democracy. He earned his visit to Cornell and the political capital he will gain thereby.
Regrettably, our relations with the PRC will be affected adversely by the decision to grant Lee a visa. Given the size of its population and its economy, its capacity to do good or evil will be extraordinary. We want good relations with the PRC. It would be contrary to the interests of the US - and of the people of Taiwan - to provoke the PRC with support for Taiwan's independence.
But being sensitive to China's concerns doesn't require rolling over and playing dead every time the Beijing government is offended by American words or deeds. The PRC has generally been indifferent to American concerns. It has been helpful when its own interests were similar to ours. It has not been responsive to American apprehension about its arms sales to Pakistan and Iran. It has certainly been unresponsive to American protests against its human rights abuses.
The tensions between the US and the PRC don't have to become a new cold war. Some day the PRC may get a decent government that respects the rights of its own people and that allows dissidents to speak without fear of imprisonment. Then the US will be more responsive. Perhaps then the people of Taiwan will be ready for peaceful reunion with the mainland.