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Interview Lee Kuan Yew
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The Cruel Game

Singapore's senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has a blunt message for Taiwan: For the sake of the entire region, its people must accept the inevitability of a future with China. Lee spoke in an interview on May 26 with the REVIEW's Phil Revzin, Michael Vatikiotis, David Plott and Ben Dolven.

June 8, 2000

CHINA'S PREOCCUPATION with Taiwan is making the rest of Asia nervous. Yet, with the exception of Taiwan itself, dialogue and debate on the issue has largely been confined to Washington and Beijing, where there is little room for compromise: China grows steadily more insistent on the need for speedy unification, and some American politicians sound sympathetic to independence for Taiwan.

Here lies the danger for the rest of Asia, says veteran leader Lee Kuan Yew. In an interview with the Review, Singapore's senior minister, a former adviser to Beijing, delivers a strong message to Taipei, Beijing and Washington. His worry is that the escalation of tension over Taiwan is pushing China into a military expansion that could turn Asia's biggest market into its biggest menace.

Lee lays most of the blame at Taiwan's door. In his view, former President Lee Teng-hui's dubious achievement was to turn the Taiwan issue into China's "most urgent problem." For the Western powers, Lee has this message: Instead of encouraging Taiwan to think of itself as a separate state, try instead to convince the Taiwanese that unification with China is inevitable.

Lee's qualification to speak on the issue is Singapore's past involvement in mediation across the Taiwan Strait. Singapore hosted talks between the two sides in 1993. Another round was supposed to take place last year, but was abandoned. Now, there is talk that a new breakthrough could take the form of an "impromptu" meeting in Singapore, analysts in Beijing say.

Singapore's concern is understandable. Increasingly, its hi-tech economy relies on manufacturing platforms in China. China is its fifth-largest trading partner and an increasingly important link in Asia's electronics supply chain. Beyond that, China's military build-up--particularly the amphibious forces it would need to attack Taiwan--will also increase its ability to be assertive in Southeast Asia.

LEE: A word of caution: There is a point beyond which no Chinese leader can survive if Taiwan is seen to be drifting away under his watch. What Chen Shui-bian did at his press conferences after he won on the 18th of March was positive. He put markers day by day delineating his position, holding out the hope of a change from the fixed position of Lee Teng-hui. But because he had raised expectations by the many kites he had flown, the total impact of his carefully crafted inaugural speech was less than if he had reserved some of the key points for his main speech. Still, it was enough to hold the position for the time being. He left the door open for a future one-China and gave no grounds for any precipitate action. However, it wasn't enough to make Beijing's leaders shake off the belief they put to my prime minister in April, that this is the Lee Teng-hui era without Lee Teng-hui.

The mainland will comb through Chen's speech and all his other remarks. As is their practice, there will be a review, probably during the annual gathering of leaders at Beidaihe, their seaside resort, this August. They will read the analyses and weigh their options. My guess is they will continue to "wait and see." After the U.S. presidential election has settled who will be the next president, they will reconsider their position. Of course, in the meantime, things will not stand still. It could get worse. On the other hand, it could move towards an easing of the situation, so that it is not made more difficult for both sides to get off their high horses and talk. It is better to talk than to trade statements in the press.


Regional countries all support the one-China policy because they want to avoid what they fear is a costly and unnecessary conflict. They are concerned that the present stand-off makes China develop its amphibious and air forces to compel Taiwan to talk about reunification. Whether or not these forces are eventually used is another matter.


Well, I did not understand their leader, Lee Teng-hui. So I kept away from the problem. For China, Taiwan was one of a dozen important problems. Lee Teng-hui's achievement has been to make Taiwan China's overriding problem. Chen Shui-bian has unfortunately inherited this position.


Yes. As I said to him [Lee Teng-hui], look, if they don't disintegrate, at some point you will have to talk. If they do disintegrate, whatever you have agreed will become invalid. But he was determined to push as far away from China as possible and showed it. Beijing responded by circumscribing Taiwan internationally. Now it's a difficult situation.

The last thing any Taiwanese, even of mainlander descent, desires is to be ruled by China. What for? I was in Hong Kong recently, two and half years after the handover. They don't like to be China Chinese. Many call themselves Hong Kong people. But Taiwan's international fate was forged at the Cairo conference in 1943 when Churchill and Roosevelt agreed with Chiang Kai-shek on the return of Taiwan to China. If the U.S. can keep Taiwan separate from China indefinitely, the Taiwanese would be eternally grateful. But if Americans cannot, it's cruel to let them believe that they can. Because as a result Taiwanese nationalists are set on the creation of a different national identity.

This will make the eventual adjustment, whether in 20 or 50 years, that much more painful. They are indigenizing themselves, emphasizing a separate and different identity, rewriting school textbooks to reverse 50 years of the Republic of China's Nationalist government's sinicizing of Taiwan. That change was intended to overwrite the preceding 50 years of Nipponization. I've been through the same process. I've sung the British national anthem "God Save the Queen"; I've sung the "Kimigayo," the Japanese anthem; I sang the Malayan anthem; and I now sing my own anthem. It's a wrenching experience each time--your sense of self suffers. After he's grappled with this problem for some time, President Chen Shui-bian may come to a different conclusion from Lee Teng-hui. My "feel" of Chen is that he is more pragmatic.

Clearly, the U.S. can choose to fight and probably can defend Taiwan for another 10 to 20 years. But for how much longer? Are Americans prepared to pay the price that the mainland is ready to pay? So, all this will end up in tears. It's a cruel game to play with the Taiwanese. Their spirits will be crushed.

After Chen Shui-bian's election I discussed this subject with three sober Americans from different think-tanks. One of them said if the Chinese use force, Americans would have to react. I replied, "Let us assume your superior technology knocks the Chinese military out. Is that the end of the story?" The other think-tanker said: "That's the beginning of the story." He's thought it through. Then you've made an implacable enemy. A humiliated, bitter and xenophobic China will be determined to prove the Chinese people are neither cowards nor inferior. It will poison relations in the whole region. We will have an ugly, nasty Asia-Pacific.


Lee Teng-hui started this. I fear Chen won't be able to stop it so easily. Such movements have a momentum of their own. But Chen has got to convince the mainland that he is not de-sinicizing Taiwan and trying to erase its cultural and historic links with China. He should leave the door open for a future one-China.

This is not a profound analysis, but one which has been deliberately ignored by the Western media. So how many people think in these terms in Taiwan? The top three to four percent? It will be a crushing blow when the whole thing has to go into reverse.


Do not hold out false hopes that could lead to miscalculation by Taiwan's leaders. Why not encourage the positive, a peaceful resolution of the problem. It will take time. A 50-year-old problem cannot be solved without a process taking many years. But if there is no hope of eventual reunification, and Taiwan keeps on indigenizing and drifting away, there will be a moment of truth. Jiang Zemin does not want to be blamed as the man who lost Taiwan. So for the present, he is willing to be flexible, to have Taiwan and the mainland both be parts of one China, and leave Taiwan to run its own show.


That's the crucial issue. I told [Taiwan's former president] Chiang Ching-kuo in the mid-1980s: "Why are you stopping your Chinese from going over?" I made that same mistake until I visited China in 1976. I knew after that visit how stupid I was to rely on intelligence reports that Singaporeans would be subverted if they visit China. Any Singaporean visiting China would know that it's not for him. I said to Chiang, you've the opportunity to influence China's evolution. You've got professors who can go over and hold business management classes--they don't need translators for the lectures. Influence the next generation. They will change to fit into the world.



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