President leaving on landmark trip

By R.L. Chen, The China Post and agencies

President Chen Shui-bian is heading to a landmark overseas visit, during which his transit stops in the United States would break all stopover records made by top leaders from Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979. Chen’s 16-day diplomatic journey, beginning today, will take him to five Latin American nations via the United States. But what is billed as a low-key U.S. stopovers — a three-day stay in New York before going to El Salvador and a two-day-stay in Houston on his way back from Honduras — where he will meet U.S. congressmen and city mayors will turn the event into a high-stakes diplomatic venture certain to further strain U.S.-mainland China diplomatic ties.

The diplomatic trip, his second since becoming president last year, will take Chen to El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay and Honduras. His stopover in New York will be a historic first for an ROC head of state. Most noteworthy is Chen’s U.S. stays are packed with meetings with congressmen and photo-ops, meaning there would be more publicity for Taipei. Chen is due to visit the New York Stock Exchange and the Metropolitan Art Museum besides meeting with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. On his way back from Honduras, he will stay in Houston for two days, and would be hosted by House majority whip Tom Delay, who will take him to Houston Astros baseball park where he will enjoy the quintessential American pastime — watching a baseball game. Chen’s brief U.S. stopovers would give Taiwan the recognition and acceptance that it craves and Beijing does its best to prevent. Chen’s visit also reflects a clear shift in U.S. Taiwan policy under President George W. Bush. During his transit stay in Los Angeles last August, the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who opted not to offend mainland China, had practically restricted Chen’s activities. In addition to American lawmakers, Chen may also meet with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former ROC Premier Tang Fei, who is currently studying at Harvard University, during his May 21-23 New York transit stop. Nevertheless, Chen will refrain from taking part in any public activities or meeting the press during his New York and Houston stopover in accordance with an understanding with U.S. authorities. But the range of activities and permission from the U.S. State Department to meet members of Congress mark a departure from the practice of the previous U.S. administration, which imposed tight restrictions on visiting ROC leaders for fear of provoking Beijing.

In 1995, Beijing was deeply angered when then-ROC President Lee Teng-hui made a private but high-profile visit to the United States to take part in a reunion at Cornell University, his alma mater.

Chen is scheduled to arrive in El Salvador May 23, where he will attend a summit meeting of ROC and Central American leaders. During the May 25 summit meeting, Chen will exchange views with the top leaders of the ROC’s Central American allies on a range of issues, including regional political development, trade and economic cooperation, investment, tourism and other matters of mutual concern.