Representative to the U.S.
By Patricia Keegan
Since 1949 the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan has been speeding on breathtaking parallel paths to meet the needs of its 23 million inhabitants — first, the need for basic survival, and second, the need for freedom of expression through a democratic system of governing. Like an Olympic runner, sprinting for 50 years without pausing a moment to contemplate its achievements, Taiwan has lived with the impending threat from Mainland China just 100 miles from its coast. The most recent presidential election has brought this small island some untidy challenges characteristic of the democratic processes, nevertheless Taiwan’s people continue to deal with all the obstacles to smooth governing with a combination of fortitude and a strong belief in their own identity.
Taiwan’s meteoric economic and technological advances are well known in the United States but less well known is its rapid transformation into a thriving democracy. Taiwan’s recently appointed Representative to the U.S., Mr. C.J. (Chien-Jen) Chen, would like more Americans to understand that his country’s seemingly boundless energy and creativity extend beyond economics to politics as well.
Representative Chen is singularly well placed to achieve his goal of raising American consciousness about his island nation. Because of his previous appointments in Washington he brings a unique historical perspective. This is, he said, his third tour of duty in Washington. His first tour, as a junior diplomat, was from 1971-1980, a period of fundamental change in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. His second tour was from 1982-1989, while his current tour began in July of this year. Intimately familiar with American society and our political structures and culture, he brings nearly 20 years of direct experience to bear on the current situation.
When Mr. Chen arrived for his first tour, in 1971, Taiwan and U.S. had full diplomatic relations, but 'already we had difficulties…we could see change coming.' President Nixon went on his state visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1972; U.S.-Taiwan relations continued till 1978, when President Carter and Deng Xiaoping reached their historic agreement. This was, Mr. Chen said, 'a very sad situation. The peoples of the two countries were very close, but because of ‘global strategic considerations,’ our best friend in the international community–that is to say, the United States–decided to switch diplomatic recognition.'
'We felt we had been betrayed, and many of our friends in the U.S. felt the same way.'
Yet the change of diplomatic recognition led to the current 'bedrock foundation' of US-Taiwan relations. Following recognition of the PRC, Carter introduced a short, untitled bill to Congress that would outline U.S. relations with Taiwan, a bill that contained not a word about the security of the Taiwan Straits. Both houses of Congress stopped the bill and drafted their own, which eventually became the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
Mr. Chen is aware of, but unworried by, the seeming ambiguity of certain clauses in the TRA. Certain aspects or principles of the Act, he noted, are very clearly laid out: the security of Taiwan and the continued relations between the two countries are two examples. Yet he noted that 'there are about 20 executive discretions in the TRA, decisions that have to be made by the U.S. government as circumstances arise.'
The main area of ambiguity, he said, concerns the US response to any given action by Mainland China towards Taiwan. This area 'was ambiguous before; now it is clearer. We’ve accumulated 20 years of experience, from the signing of the TRA till now. From those 20 years, we can perhaps foresee situations and the likely reactions from the United States.'
A clear, concrete example of this was the PRC’s 1996 'missile exercises' in the Taiwan Straits, when the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers to the region. 'Is that clear enough?' Mr. Chen asked. Taiwan, the U.S., and the PRC hold a number of common interests, among them peace, security and stability in the region. Furthermore, Taiwan and the US share ideals: both enjoy peace and democracy, and uphold human rights. Such shared principles are an important aspect of the bilateral relations between our two countries. 'I can’t imagine that the U.S. would just ignore a country which shares the same values as the United States, to be invaded or attacked–or even threatened,' Mr. Chen said.
These shared values are at the heart of Taiwan’s recent and rapid process of democratization. While the country has come a long way very quickly, the development of its political liberalization started later than its economic growth. Taiwan’s economy, Mr. Chen said, dramatically improved in the early 1980s: their foreign trade soared, foreign reserves grew rapidly, and per capita income and gross national product increased markedly. Mr. Chen noted that there were several factors involved in such growth. 'From 1949,' he said, 'China has had two governments: one on Taiwan, the other on the Mainland, with different economic and political systems. From the very beginning, we have had to rely on ourselves.'
Such self-reliance was manifested in many ways. Taiwan’s success has been due, in part, to the fact that for the last 50 years, it has enjoyed relative peace. In addition, its people are hard-working and educated, it has had good leadership ('None of our leaders were corrupt,' Mr. Chen noted), and it has followed intelligent developmental strategies. In addition, the international environment–especially solid relations with the U.S.–has made a difference.
Taiwan’s outlook has been so positive that people often ask Mr. Chen people on Taiwan are concerned about the lack of diplomatic recognition; the country has done well without it, so why bother? 'We have achieved a great deal, but I say that if we had had diplomatic relations, we could have done much better.'
Mr. Chen said that it was 'very exciting to see democracy at work in Taiwan.' While the economy came first for a long time, the general direction of politics in Taiwan was clear. The Constitution was promulgated in 1947, but the real changes came in the late 1980s. In 1987, the country lifted martial law, a major step on the way to liberalization. The same year, Taiwan lifted its restrictions on travel between it and the Mainland, thus opening up the possibility of increased contact and dialogue.
In the last four years, Mr. Chen said, Taiwan has had two direct presidential elections, both free and fair. The pace of change, he said, has been very rapid. 'For 5,000 years, China never had democracy. Many scholars and professors even thought for a while that it was not possible for Western democracy to transfer to any Chinese society, because of our tradition or our culture. But within 13 or 15 years, democracy has finally and rapidly implanted itself on our soil.' And for the first time in Taiwan’s history, the Kuomintang party was voted out of office in the most recent election, replaced by the long-time opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Mr. Chen said that Taiwan’s democracy is very vibrant and energetic, but 'sometimes very noisy.'
The new DPP government has moderated some of the planks in its platform since taking power. This, Mr. Chen said, was a sign that democracy in Taiwan is alive and well. While the party platform may call for a nationwide referendum on independence from China, it cannot unilaterally make such a decision without consulting the 23 million people of Taiwan, whom such a decision would directly affect. The new government is showing prudence in its policies, and while some may wish for more rapid change, the DPP has had the difficult job of transition from opposition to government. 'Such changes take time,' Mr. Chen said.
Mr. Chen’s sole objective during his current tour in Washington is to 'improve further the relations between Taiwan and the United States.' It looks very simple, he said, but in actuality it is much more difficult. One difficulty is that there are so many aspects to the Taiwan-U.S. relationship. 'I would like to improve relations with the administration further, with Capitol Hill, with the media, with the think tanks, with the Chinese communities in the U.S., etc., ' he said.
The most important aspect of his objective is to 'let the American people understand Taiwan. The more they understand Taiwan, the more they will like and support us.' Mr. Chen emphasized that 'Taiwan has been doing all positive things: making a poor, backward, underdeveloped society into a rich and prosperous one, and making a closed authoritarian society into an open democratic one.'
'Our people are still working so hard and diligently,' he said. 'There is no reason not to like what we are doing.'
Mr. Chen feels that the American public should know Taiwan better now than in the past. First, there is more access to information, given the telecommunications and research tools now at hand. Second, the world has changed. In the 1980s, a bipolar world existed, with 'people not so sure if everyone in the ‘democratic camp’ was really democratic.' Dictatorships sided with the free world, while even in the world of Communism.
'Now people look at each individual country not as part of some particular camp, but by itself. Because of that, people come to know each country better.' The numbers of people traveling between the U.S. and Taiwan contributes to better understanding. Mr. Chen also seizes on opportunities to speak to schools, in order to explain the differences between Taiwan and the PRC.
Tourism also plays a role in such education. Strategically placed at the center of Pacific travel, Taiwanese tourism has great potential. 'To be honest, though, we haven’t paid enough attention to tourism.' Now under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, the Tourism Bureau should, Mr. Chen feels, be elevated, as it has been in Spain. He cited Spain and Ireland as two countries where tourism has contributed much to their economy and international standing.
Given Taiwan’s situation, 'survival always came first. Now that we are secure and peaceful, we should take a look at tourism. Tourism helps you physically and mentally, even spiritually,' he added. 'You expose yourself to the outside world.'
Taiwan has much to recommend itself for tourism: its natural beauty, its cutting-edge technological sector, its modern society and cities all contribute to its appeal. Taiwan holds the greatest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts in the world–a fact recognized even by PRC officials. And it is never dull.
'After my last tour here, I spent 11 years in Taiwan. Every day, something new occurred. In some places, you can spend 10 years and nothing changes. Taiwan has an unusual energy; it changes all the time.' Visitors to Taiwan come away impressed with this spirit of dynamism and can-do attitude that has been historically identified as an American trait.
Mr. Chen was born August 11, 1939. He earned his LL.B. degree in Diplomacy from National Chengchi University (Taipei) in 1960, and attended the University’s Graduate School of Diplomacy in 1962. In 1965, he earned an LL.B. from King’s College, Cambridge, and in 1966 studied at the School of Political and Economic Science at the University of Madrid. He continued his advanced studies at Georgetown University in 1976. Mr. Chen has served in various positions in Taiwan’s Embassy and Representative Office in the U.S., in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan as chairman of the foreign relations committee, as foreign minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and as director-general in the Government Information Office. Since 1998, he has also been Associate Professor at the Department and Graduate School of Diplomacy at National Chengchi University.