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'Taiwanization' of SDI Allows the Dialogue to Continue

December 20, 1987|JOHN MARKS | Author and former Foreign Service officer John Marks is executive director of Search for Common Ground, based in Washington.

In the warm afterglow of the summit, the question arises: What happened to "Star Wars?" It was this issue of the Strategic Defense Initiative that had kept President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev from reaching comprehensive agreement at Reykjavik only 14 months ago.

The President and his men adamantly stated that SDI was not negotiable. And the Soviets' view was similarly fixed in concrete: They declared that meaningful agreement was not possible if the United States went ahead with SDI. As in the old song lyric, an "irresistible force" apparently had met an "immovable object."

While neither superpower is near the point of renouncing its stated position, something has obviously given. The United States and the Soviet Union have signed an agreement eliminating intermediate- and short-range nuclear forces, and they made real progress toward a 50% cut in strategic weapons.

What has happened is that the United States and the Soviet Union have decided, in effect, to "Taiwanize" SDI. They are treating it in a fashion similar to the way the United States and the People's Republic of China handled the Taiwan issue.

I define "Taiwanization" as the process by which the United States and a major communist foe, sharing a commitment to improving their relationship, reduce the importance that they'd given a once-intractable problem--without solving the problem. In this way, they agree to keep disagreeing while not allowing the disagreement to keep them from getting along much better. (Anyone who has been involved in a successful marriage knows how this process works.)

The idea of "Taiwanization" comes from America's experience with China. It needed to be invented because the United States and the People's Republic of China have, since 1948, held diametrically opposing views on the status of Taiwan.

Even today the mainland Chinese assert that Taiwan is theirs and that it is illegally occupied by Nationalist forces. In contrast, the United States recognized the Nationalist government as the legal ruler until 1979 and still maintains what is, in effect, a "Two Chinas" policy. Before President Richard M. Nixon's breakthrough trip to China in 1972, the Taiwan question seemed insoluble. Then almost overnight, China was transformed from the "Yellow Peril" to a country that we all wanted to visit.

Without getting into who was "right" and who was "wrong" about Taiwan's status, the fact is that when the United States and China decided to build a new relationship, Taiwan was not allowed to stand in the way. Chinese and American leaders signed the Shanghai Communique of 1972, which stated in essence that Taiwan would not be allowed to interfere with greatly improved relations.

Diplomatic language was used to paper over the fact that neither side had changed its views over the key issue of who owned the island. The problem was not solved. Both sides simply agreed to move it down their priority list from "central burning question" to "back-burner issue."

Thus, the United States and China allowed time for the poison to drain from the Taiwan issue. Within this context, the Chinese have since opened up their economy, and the Nationalist leadership has aged. These developments raise the hope that a genuine solution could occur in the next generation. Such a solution would have been inconceivable, however, if American and Chinese leaders had tried to "solve" Taiwan back in 1972--which brings us back to SDI.

While there are other contentious issues between the United States and the Soviet Union--from Afghanistan to human rights--SDI has been the biggest sticking point. At the Washington summit, Reagan and Gorbachev clearly made a conscious judgment to lower the importance they place on SDI. They agreed to some rather bland language about continuing to observe the ABM treaty. The important fact was that neither side needed to give in.

The Soviets maintained their firm position against space-based defenses. Yet they reduced considerably the stridency that they attach to the issue.

The Reagan Administration, for its part, still champions Star Wars. Yet it has reduced its insistence that SDI is essential. In this way, the Administration has made a virtue out of necessity, since Congress has been taking large slices out of the space-defense budget and limiting the ability to break out of the ABM treaty.

This "Taiwanization" process has not brought Moscow and Washington much closer to solving the SDI question. But it certainly has improved the state of U.S.-Soviet relations by opening up the possibility of agreements on other issues.

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