Visiting Taiwan, Clinton Irritates Pro-Independence Groups and China

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Former President Bill Clinton has ended a visit to Taiwan, where he annoyed pro-independence campaigners by expressing support for Beijing's "one China" policy and upset China by meeting twice with a leader the communist mainland seeks to isolate in the international community.

Clinton, who last visited Taiwan while governor of Arkansas, met with President Chen Shui-bian, reviled by Beijing as a "splittist" for his pro-independence tendencies, and also delivered a keynote speech at a democracy foundation.

His visit came at a sensitive time: China's rubber-stamp parliament begins a session on Saturday expected to endorse a controversial "anti-secession" bill that could give China a legal basis to use force if Taiwan formalizes its de facto independence.

Chen called Monday for "all peace-loving nations of the world" to express their concern about Beijing's plan to pass the law.

Clinton's speech before the government-financed Taiwan Foundation for Democracy dealt with the challenges and risks of living in a more "interdependent" 21st century world. He also praised Taiwan's democracy.

The sensitive comments came earlier, in an interview with a Hong Kong-based newspaper, when Clinton said he hoped his visit to Taiwan would not be interpreted by either Beijing or Taipei as a change in his or in Washington's stance on the dispute.

"I sincerely stand by the 'one-China' policy," Clinton said, urging both sides to resolve the dispute peacefully.

The policy refers to Beijing's contention that Taiwan is a rebel province that will eventually be reunified with the mainland.

The U.S. interpretation is more nuanced, focusing on discouraging both sides from taking any unilateral steps that will affect the status quo. It opposes any moves towards formal independence, but is also committed by law to protect Taiwan from outside aggression.

After Clinton's comments to the Hong Kong paper, a Taiwanese daily quoted him as saying that the "one-China" policy protects Taiwan.

The Taiwan Solidarity Union, a small pro-independence party, criticized the former president, saying there was no need for him to speak on behalf of China. His remarks had hurt the feelings of Taiwanese people, said TSU chairman Su Chin-chiang.

Taiwanese have mixed feelings about Clinton.

He's remembered fondly for dispatching an aircraft carrier group to the area in 1996 after China conducted missile tests in an attempt to influence Taiwanese voters facing the emerging democracy's first direct presidential election.

Two years later, however, on a visit to the mainland Clinton announced what became known as a "three noes" policy - no U.S. support for Taiwan's independence, no support for "two Chinas," and no support for Taiwan joining international organizations that require statehood for membership.

Many contrasted the "three noes" to President Reagan's "six assurances" to Taiwan, in 1982. They included the statement that the U.S. "has not changed our long-standing policy on the matter of sovereignty over Taiwan." Analysts say that policy holds that the question of sovereignty over Taiwan remains "undetermined."

On an earlier visit to the Asia-Pacific in 2002, Clinton also upset many Taiwanese when he gave a paid speech to a pro-Beijing conference in Sydney, Australia.

Speaking at the World Congress on the Peaceful Reunification of China, Clinton said that a process of reunification of Taiwan was "moving in the right direction."

The conference participants later issued a declaration denouncing what they said was a "breakaway scheme" on the part of pro-independence elements in Taiwan "aided by foreign forces."

The Taipei Times at the time denounced Clinton, accusing him of "selling out his integrity" by "publicly embracing the unification propaganda of China, a country notorious for human-rights violations."

"His speech conveniently ignored the fact that the people of Taiwan reject unification and that they have a right to decide their own future," the paper editorialized.

Notwithstanding that episode, Taiwan's foreign ministry spokesman said Monday the former president's visit was important and would help raise the country's profile internationally.

Spokesman Michael Lu said the ministry would continue to invite political figures from countries friendly to Taiwan to visit.

Beijing strongly opposes anything that could be seen as legitimizing the Taiwanese government.

Speaking before Clinton's brief visit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan reminded the former president of "China's solemn position on the Taiwan question."

"He should know how to act to honor a series of promises that the past U.S. governments, including his, made to the Chinese government on the Taiwan question," Kong said, adding that those included sticking to the "one-China" policy and opposing Taiwan's independence.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow