Taiwan wields influence in U.S. through friendships in low places Patience and persuasion produce indirect power

March 24, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - You could say that Taiwan wields influence in the United States simply by spending lavishly, but you would be wrong. It's a matter of money plus carefully cultivated friendships.

While shelling out millions of dollars to Washington lobbyists and consultants, Taiwan keeps in close touch with people like Dennis Black, a Democratic state senator in Iowa.

In August, Mr. Black joined other lawmakers from Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois on a week-long expense-paid trip to Taiwan.

His district includes Newton, home of the Maytag washer, which has a sister-city relationship with a town in Taiwan. Mr. Black speaks almost weekly by phone with Simon Sung, a Taiwan representative in Chicago, and plans to show him the famed bridges of Madison County this spring.

So when China mounted menacing missile tests in advance of yesterday's presidential election in Taiwan, Mr. Black says, he needed no prompting to push a resolution through the Iowa Legislature calling on the federal government to "send a clear message" opposing Beijing's "political intimidation and threats of military confrontation."

"No one buys me they never have in the past," Mr. Black says. "There are those of us who are intelligent enough to research the fact that Taiwan has been our willing supporter since the 1940s. We have a very strategic interest in Taiwan."

Relationships like this with sister cities, mayors, governors, and Kiwanis and Rotary organizations nationwide "are the ties that bind," says Richard V. Allen, a former national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan who has given paid and unpaid advice to the Taipei government.

They form the strong emotional underpinning for a well-financed, high-powered but low-key lobbying effort in Washington that has kept Taiwan supplied with weaponry and an abundant measure of support on Capitol Hill. Where other foreign lobbies sometimes get their way through more transparent pressure, the Taiwanese succeed with gentle persuasion.

Taiwan has had strong pockets of support in the United States since 1949, when the Nationalist Chinese led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island of Formosa as a Communist revolution gripped the mainland. For decades afterward, anti-Communist conservatives in the United States drew inspiration from the tiny nation developing in the shadow of China.

President Jimmy Carter infuriated many members of Congress in December 1978, when he abruptly ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognized the People's Republic of China. The Taiwan Relations Act, passed the next year, represented an effort by Congress to enshrine a continuing relationship with the island even without formal ties. The law committed this country to providing Taiwan with weapons needed for self-defense and said Washington would view Chinese hostilities with "grave concern."

Already popular with many Republicans, Taiwan has made a particular effort in recent years to reach out to Democrats.

The courtship is slow but persistent. Years of quiet, behind-the-scenes stroking gave way in 1994 to a more public campaign for American acceptance, as President Lee Teng-hui tried to raise Taiwan's profile in the United States and around the world.

Rebuffed by the State Department when he sought a visa to speak at Cornell University, in New York, where he had received a Ph.D in 1968, Mr. Lee tried again the next year. Taiwan this time received help from New York's two U.S. senators, Alfonse M. D'Amato and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and from a congressional resolution endorsing his visit that passed overwhelmingly.

Eventually, an overpowered Clinton administration changed its mind. It granted Mr. Lee a visa and gave Taiwan a major propaganda victory that infuriated Beijing and that some experts say lies at the root of China's truculent behavior now.

"They work very methodically and plan far in advance," said a member of Taiwan's army of consultants, who described months of planning for a single private meeting between a prominent Democratic politician and a high-level Taiwanese official.

The vanguard of Taiwan's Washington effort is Cassidy & Associates a lobbying and public relations firm that in 1994 signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract with the Taiwan Research Institute, a quasi-governmental institution that operates separately from Taipei's unofficial embassy in Washington.

Among other things, Cassidy and one of its subsidiaries have been active in recent weeks supplying U.S. TV stations with satellite-fed video news releases on the election campaign and the tension with China.

A powerful lobbying effort by arms contractors in 1994 won congressional support to increase weapons purchases by Taiwan by hundreds of millions of dollars, despite what China claims is an understanding with Washington that Taiwan arms purchases would decline over time.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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