The Chinese Puzzle of Taiwan’s Status

When Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui told a German radio interviewer in July 1999 that relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan were “state-to-state or at least special nation-to-nation” relations, a diplomatic firestorm predictably ensued. Beijing bitterly charged that Lee had finally revealed his true face as a “splittist” who sought independence for Taiwan.1 Great powers and small alike scrambled to reaffirm their “one China” policies. President Clinton telephoned his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin in Beijing to reaffirm the U.S. commitment not to change the status quo, and senior American officials were dispatched to Taipei to press for clarification or revision of Lee’s statement. The world worried about heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and some observers warned that the PRC might feel compelled to go beyond the military exercises and missile tests that marked a similar crisis in 1995–96. On Taiwan and the mainland, stock markets fell.

Yet, the comments that precipitated all this were less than revolutionary, being either self-evident or murky, and subject to extensive and sometimes tortured interpretations. ROC officials asserted, and PRC denunciations at least implicitly conceded, that Lee’s remarks were, at most, modest moves beyond previous formulations. Still, the statement was foreseeably incendiary, for it raised again the politically volatile matter of Taiwan’s international legal status.

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