Ambassadors Archive 1

Taiwan’s Burden of Balance

An Interview with Dr. David Tawei Lee, Head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office

By Hugh S. Galford

Dr. David Tawei Lee, Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, is upbeat about the current relationship between Washington and Taipei. This contrasts with the situation in December 2003, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the US, and President Bush criticized Taiwan. In November 2005, during his speech in Kyoto, Japan, Bush devoted two paragraphs of his speech praising Taiwan as a free, democratic and prosperous country, and presenting Taiwan as a model for Chinese development in the future.

Lee says that communications between the two governments are now “more effective, more frequent and more substantive. Because of this, there is better understanding, which helps further mutual confidence.”

Despite his overall positive outlook, Lee states that the current atmosphere does not guarantee unconditional US support for Taiwan. In response to Chinese-Taiwan tensions, “no one can be certain” that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), instituted in 1979 to address the security of the people of Taiwan, only states that in case of danger to Taiwan, the US president should consult with Congress to determine the best course of action. US reaction, he says, “depends on if the threat is provocative.” If the action is instigated by China, then the US is more likely to react with force.

“This is probably the reality we have to face,” Lee says, adding that the current US government is “very friendly” and that Taiwan feels “very comfortable” working with the US. He also notes that the Taiwan government “has not been trying to poke China’s eyes.” Taiwan, he says, emphasizes the freedom of choice of the island’s 23 million people as a democratic principle.

“It is not Taiwanese governmental policy to pursue independence. The people have the right to decide their future,” Lee says, emphasizing Taiwan’s active democracy. Lee points to the fact that the percentage of Taiwanese in favor of independence directly relates to how the question is posed. Polls show that about 10 percent of Taiwan’s population is in favor of immediate independence from China, with another 20 percent favoring independence at some future date. He estimates 30-35 percent of the Taiwanese want independence at some point, and that most of the rest want a continuation of the status quo.

Lee describes current cross-straits relations as a “stalemate.” The last dialogue between the two sides occurred in 1998. Since then, Lee says, “there has been no senior-level direct dialogue.” Lee noted that before agreeing to any official talks, China has set preconditions, among which is requiring Taiwan to admit the One China Principle, which maintains that there is only one China in the world, and that Taiwan is a part of that China. Yet all is not frozen. China and Taiwan recently signed agreements to allow direct passenger flights between the two countries, in time for the Chinese New Year. These passenger flights will prove convenient for Taiwanese businessmen, students, employees in China, and families to reunite during the celebrations. This agreement follows on a September 2005 agreement allowing Taiwanese airlines to fly through Chinese airspace, making for shorter, more direct flights to the rest of Asia and Europe.

The new flight agreement was negotiated by the civil aviation authorities in Taipei and Beijing, not by their respective governments. The agreement will allow flights between Taipei and Kaohsiung airports in Taiwan, and Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen and Guangzhou in China.

The cross-straits situation is at the center of Taiwan-US relations, as well. Lee presumes that Chinese naval exercises will continue off the Taiwan coast. Taiwan’s sole military system provider is the US. Funding for a major new arms package—including Patriot missiles, anti-submarine weapons and additional submarines for Taiwan’s fleet—has been held up by wrangling in Taiwan’s legislature. These defensive arms are absolutely necessary, Lee says, for his country’s ability to counter any Chinese attack. “Taiwan is not so silly as to launch an attack,” he says, pointing out that Taiwan has a no first-strike policy.

Movement on this funding package may be able to move forward, now that the December 3 municipal and regional elections have concluded. The opposition Kuomintang Party, the ruling party for 50 years, resoundingly won the majority of races. Generally seen as a reaction to the ruling Democratic Progress Party’s inability to enact promised reforms and corruption scandals within the Party, the end of elections may allow debate on the arms bill to move forward. At the same time, the KMT may feel it has a new popular mandate and attempt to show its strength through further opposition to the bill.

Dr. Lee states his goal in Washington as trying to enhance relations between the two countries and governments. “It is a simple goal, but a difficult task.” With a BA in Political Science from National Taiwan University and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, and nearly 30 years experience in academia and government service, Lee is well suited to the task.

The lack of formal diplomatic relations between the US and Taiwan makes his job more difficult, he admits. In Washington, people know who he is, but outside the capital, few are aware of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. Beyond the purely political, Lee hopes to see more cultural troupes from Taiwan in the US, like the Formosa Aboriginal Song & Dance Troupe that performed in front of a sell-out crowd at Washington’s Smithsonian Institution in October.

In these times, few emissaries to Washington carry quite the burden of diplomacy as does Dr. Lee. Capable and personable, he appears to bear it with Confucian equanimity, stressing his affection for his country and its achievements as a fledgling democracy. Deeply influenced by the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, Lee has thrown himself into his work with abandon. He says that in his 16 months here, he has not had a day off. He was hoping to have a couple days’ rest at Thanksgiving, but had to spend the time in New York with visitors from Taiwan who were unaware of the holiday. His job, Lee says, “is centered on the well-being of the Taiwanese people. Relations with the US have always been most important, and the most crucial to maintain.”