clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


When Lee Teng-hui is sworn in for another four-year term as Taiwan's president Monday, the ceremony will be far more than the mere formality of the past.

For the first time, Taiwan has a president elected by universal suffrage, and it comes when the island's relations with China are at a critical juncture.The Beijing regime fears Lee is bent on carving out independence for Taiwan, which became a bastion for defeated Nationalist forces after the Communists won the civil war on the mainland in 1947.

China staged several weeks of war games just before the March 23 election as a warning to Lee. And many people fear another round of military intimidation if Lee does not drop his push for a greater international role for Taiwan.

Expectations of Lee's inaugural speech have reached a high pitch, forcing Lee and his aides to work hard to calm them.

The big question is: Will Lee offer Beijing a new deal for easing tensions? No, say officials. But he may look for ways to sound conciliatory.

"We go step by step. On the 20th, there won't be any unusual ideas. There may be a little something, but very big changes are impossible," Lee said in a story published Friday by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

The excitement is understandable, given the tumult of recent months.

Lee, in office since 1988, got 54 percent of the votes in the election - an unprecedented mandate for handling relations with China, which many people feel must be improved if Taiwan is to continue to prosper.

After taking the oath, Lee will give a half-hour address to 50,000 people at a stadium outside Taipei, complete with orchestra, 21-gun salute and air force flyby.

But the seats reserved for the 300 foreign guests will be mute testimony to Beijing's success in isolating Taiwan diplomatically.

Only 31 countries recognize Taiwan's government, and only nine heads of state or government will attend the ceremony. Many governments will send unofficial representatives. The United States is sending lawyer Vernon Jordan, a non-governmental adviser to President Clinton.

While Taiwan has learned to live in diplomatic loneliness, the tensions with China are something it has not experienced since the late 1950s.

China considers Taiwan a renegade province, and believes Lee wants to dump the doctrine long professed by both sides that China and Taiwan are one country.

Lee is expected to extend Beijing an olive branch in his address by affirming his commitment to Chinese reunification.

But defying Beijing's objections, he will also firmly reassert Taiwan's right to an independent foreign policy.

The test will come in August, when Taiwan's annual push to regain membership in the United Nations reaches its crescendo. To Beijing, the U.N. bid is a sign that Taiwan is taking the independence road.

Beijing will be watching how hard Taiwan pushes the U.N. bid, said Yang Kai-huang, vice president of the Mainland China Studies Association.

If Taiwan campaigns as stubbornly as before, and then holds out for Lee to be invited to the year-end Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, a return to military intimidation might be in the offing, Yang said.

Since the election, Lee has been mostly quiet about China, busying himself with a planned Cabinet reshuffle.

But in recent interviews with foreign journalists, he has called Chinese President Jiang Zemin "rational" and held the door open for a summit. Taiwan is also trying to get China to reopen the low-level talks it froze last June in anger over Lee's visit to the United States.

"Lee's basic outlook is unchanged, but whether he alters his style is worth watching," said Yang.