Lien heads off on four-nation mission

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 February, 1998, 12:00am

Taiwan Vice-President Lien Chan left suddenly yesterday to tour Malaysia, Jordan, Lebanon and Bahrain.

Pundits have interpreted the mission as Taipei sending a clear signal to Beijing that 'delicate cross-strait relations or not, do not try to suffocate us'.

Mr Lien will make a private 'academic visit' to Jordan to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Jordan, then head for the other destinations over the next two weeks, the Central News Agency reported in Taipei.

The trip was shrouded in secrecy for fear of interference by Beijing. All of the countries on Mr Lien's itinerary have ties with China.

Taiwanese leaders insist overseas visits are vital to asserting the island's autonomy, but often travel in semi-covert fashion to bypass mainland protests.

Academics said the move was consistent with Taipei's recent desire to manoeuvre 'within Beijing's confines'.

'The timing of this trip is intriguing considering the current back-and-forth nature of cross-strait discussions. It can be seen as a very explicit call for breathing space,' said Dr Yuan-I, associate research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

In light of recent diplomatic setbacks, Taiwanese leaders were telling Beijing that they would bounce back, Dr Yuan said.

Another scholar saw Mr Lien's trip as a bid to distinguish himself politically.

'He is trying to be his own man, to get out of President Lee Teng-hui's cocoon,' said Dr Richard Yang, chairman of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei.

'He doesn't want to antagonise Beijing outright. This is a subtle message to the world,' Dr Yang said.

Mr Lien's office would not comment on his trip, but Foreign Minister Jason Hu Chih-chiang said Taiwanese leaders were bent on escaping diplomatic isolation.

'We have to let the mainland know that they needn't bother trying to keep us down because we're going to be going out anyway,' Mr Hu said on his return from a visit to African allies.

In a departure from past practice, Mr Lien's trip was not leaked to the media before he left. Mr Hu said the news blackout aimed to avoid mainland interference.

'It's inconvenient to reveal the Vice-President's itinerary because we want to avoid arousing the attention of leaders in Beijing,' he said.