AS TAIPEI SPRUCED UP FOR NEXT WEEK'S HISTORIC INAUGURATION, PRESIDENT Lee Teng-hui--Taiwan's first democratically elected leader--granted an exclusive interview to a NEWSWEEK team led by Editor Maynard Parker. Ebullient, chatty and combative, Lee met his visitors in Taipei's presidential palace. Speaking in English, and occasionally in Mandarin, Lee outlined a tough strategy toward mainland China, though he seemed surprisingly ready to cooperate with his Beijing counterpart, President Jiang Zemin. He also spoke of his personal philosophy, rejecting the idea that democracy is inherently un-Asian. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Chinese leaders will pay close attention to your inaugural speech on May 20. What will they hear?
LEE: I can't say too much. One thing I can say: I declare that freedom and democracy are the most important things for the Republic of China on Taiwan--and how to defend that freedom and democracy.
If China's President Jiang Zemin were sitting here, what would you say to him?
Take it easy. Don't be in a hurry. The Chinese question should be discussed slowly. Don't use weapons. Freedom and democracy are very important; Chinese people want them.
How do you evaluate Jiang? On the one hand, he says he has a peace plan, on the other he fires missiles near Taiwan.
Jiang Zemin's eight-point plan [to peacefully reunite Taiwan and the mainland] was a breakthrough. He tried to be different [from ailing leader Deng Xiaoping]. But Taiwan policy became a very hot point in Beijing's power struggle. Jiang is chairman of the military commission, but he has no control of military people. He has to compromise. [But] it seems to me Jiang is quite reasonable compared with the others. I don't know his [political] position. We are waiting for the outcome of China's Communist Party Congress in September.
Can you do anything to make Jiang Zemin's job easier?
We have to see the outcome of the struggle after Deng Xiaoping dies. If Jiang Zemin survives, it may be a very good time for talking. Before that, it will be difficult.
The mainland military exercises off Taiwan--an attempt to hurt your presidential election campaign--failed. Do you think Beijing leaders recognize their defeat?
Chinese leaders worry about face. Maybe inside they feel [defeat], but they don't speak out.
Will the mainland leaders treat Taiwan with more respect in the future?
They still think Beijing is very strong. It's a big country, and Taiwan is small. So they don't [admit it] even if they are defeated, as they were in Vietnam. They lost so many soldiers, but not one person could say, "We were defeated." If they said that, they would be destroyed in a power struggle.
Did the United States do the right thing by putting aircraft carriers off your coast during the crisis?
Thank you very much for defending Taiwan at a very crucial time.
With your country buying U.S. F-16 and French Mirage warplanes and China buying Russian Su-27s, are you worried about an arms race in East Asia?
We haven't made this an arms race. We have 35-year-old warships. We need a more modern navy. And we cannot fly our F-104s and F-5Es because we've lost so many pilots [in crashes]. Without replacement planes we can't defend ourselves.
Is China building up its forces mainly to threaten Taiwan?
Not only Taiwan. China is expanding militarily so quickly because at present, their airplanes can fly over the islands they occupy for less than 10 minutes. They need long-range airplanes, and they want to build an aircraft carrier.
What are your …