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Global Commentary
Wednesday, 21 July 2004
Lee Hsien Loong's Taiwan visit unleashes storm from China
Topic: Politics
Singapore Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and incoming prime minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to Taiwan from 10-13 July provoked strong reactions from China.

On 11 July, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue expressed "strong dissatisfaction" with the visit and warned: "The Singaporean side should take full responsibility for what results from this event."

Soon after that, China cancelled People's Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan's trip to Singapore, where he had been scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the Monetary Authority of Singapore's annual lecture on 14 July.

Following the angry reaction from Beijing, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that emphasised Singapore's support for the "One China" policy and its opposition to Taiwanese independence. It also emphasised that the trip is "a private and unofficial visit".

The Chinese government was unimpressed. Zhang retorted: "Mr Lee Hsien Loong has held senior positions in the Singaporean government for many years, so his capacity cannot be changed by a simple remark."

Speculation in Taiwanese media that Lee may be trying to play mediator in cross-strait relationship aggravated Beijing's unhappiness. "The Taiwan question is China's internal affair and we have never required or needed any countries or people to pass on messages across the strait," Zhang said.

In contrast, the Taiwanese side has been sensitive to Singapore's diplomatic predicament. By and large, Taiwanese government officials did not publicly play up the visit. When asked about his impression of Lee, Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Chen said: "He is a handsome man."

Nevertheless, the importance of the visit to the Taiwanese government was not lost on the media. In a 13 July report, the Taipei Times reported: "Despite the low profile of the visit and the secrecy surrounding his schedule, the media nonetheless caught the pomp and ceremony extended by President Chen Shui-bian and members of his government to the young national leader."

The Taiwanese government also did not highlight any cross-strait mediation role for Lee. On 14 July, the Taipei Times quoted a senior Taiwanese government official as saying that "[DPM] Lee demonstrated caution when touching on cross-strait and diplomatic matters. He was most certainly not serving as a negotiator between [Taiwan and China] and did not deliver a message from Beijing," the official said.

Despite the stand of the Beijing government, the official media in China was relatively restrained in its reporting. Most reported the official stand without additional comment.

It was another matter with the unofficial media.

On 15 July, the International Herald Leader headlined a story: "Lee Hsien Loong's Taiwan visit broke the Lee Kuan Yew model of striking a balance on the Taiwan Strait." Mr He Liangliang, a Phoenix Satellite Television commentator, was quoted as chiding Mr Lee for visiting Beijing in May, then making a trip to Taiwan two months later despite China's protestations.

On a CCTV4 programme that night, Professor Tao Wenzhao, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that DPM Lee had gone overboard in trying to secure benefits for Singapore by exploiting the cross-strait situation. "The visit is absolutely unacceptable," he said.

The comments by Yan Xuetong, director of the International Relations Research Institute at Tsinghua University, probably takes the cake.

Yan wrote on Xinhuanet.com: "By taking along his defence minister on his visit, DPM Lee showed blatant support for Taiwanese independence forces. If this visit did not cause great damage to Singapore's national interests, DPM Lee will increase his support for Taiwanese independence after he takes power, in order to use it as a bargaining chip with China."

The point about the defence minister accompanying Lee on the visit is factually incorrect, as clarified by the Singapore government.

The point about Lee supporting Taiwanese independence is also unsubstantiated by the facts. Apart from the government's clearly-expressed "One China" policy, the visit itself is also not exceptional when put in the perspective of the close economic and military relations that Singapore has maintained with Taiwan since Kuomintang days, well before President Lee Teng-hui started publicly suggesting Taiwanese independence.

While it is obviously not in China's interests to encourage other countries to build up their relations with Taiwan, it is clearly in China's interests to maintain a rational approach to the issue. Otherwise, it risks lowering its international stature and credibility as a trustworthy player in the international arena.

Posted by lim_cs at 9:21 PM JST | post your comment (0) | link to this post

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