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Realism Tempers the 'One China' Principle

Beijing looks toward the long term as Taiwan dims the spotlight on independence.

March 29, 2000|TOM PLATE

Since the big stir of the Taiwan election earlier this month, the East Asian front is a bit quieter. Neither Beijing nor Taiwan appears ready to precipitate World War III. Not yet, anyway. The potential for March madness, as there was four years ago when mainland Chinese forces conducted military exercises and rocket tests on the eve of Taiwan's first presidential election, seems to have yielded to a March miracle of restraint. The world should be thankful for small favors.

Beijing hasn't climbed down from its "one China" principle, held since 1949. Vice Premier Qian Qichen, China's top foreign policy official, reiterated it just last week. However, the Chinese media last week were painting a more complex portrait of the government's road-to-unity policy than the West is accustomed to seeing. It admitted that Taiwan's merger with the mainland was a difficult issue--the time-honored Chinese way of saying that only the full course of history can correct an injustice built up over the course of time, and that impatient people should learn to be patient. Beijing, it seems, will rest on its motherland-enlargement laurels for the time being: "With Hong Kong and Macao reunited with the motherland," declaimed an editorial in China Daily, "the Taiwan issue has to be solved. However, the Taiwan issue is rather complicated and may not be solved instantly." That was not the sound of a nation piling into invasion boats.

Invasion threats were not the theme, either, of the controversial Beijing "white paper" on Taiwan that reiterated the government's views about the necessary unity of China with Taiwan. The document, released just before the island's March 18 election that swept Chen Shui-bian into office, while restating standard communist dogma, virtually pleaded with the "runaway island" not to declare independence officially. Indeed, the document, which described negotiations that would not treat Taipei as an inferior but rather would take into account the island's concerns, attempted to be less blustery than accommodating--not that many commentators in the West who claimed to find it so offensive actually took the time to read it.

To be sure, its release, just weeks before the Taiwan election, was inherently troublesome and clumsy. But that seemed less to bother than to help former Taipei Mayor Chen, who in his campaign's waning hours took to likening himself to Richard Nixon, who had the political base needed to cut a deal with the mainland. So far, in fact, Chen has played his cards so skillfully that Beijing has had little to complain about. The president-elect has invited the legendary Communist Party elder Wang Daohan to Taipei for the May 20 inaugural. Nice move: Wang is not the sort to advise President Jiang Zemin, for whom Wang has been a close political mentor for decades, to settle the cross-straits issue by force. Rather, Wang, a wise old head who once did his time in the countryside digging trenches on a farm under the supervision of Red Guards and for years has handled the sensitive Taiwan portfolio for Beijing, has seen it all and doesn't want to revive that kind of insane past.

Moreover, Chen has been keeping the Taiwan independence card hidden from view. Indeed, a leading member of his Democratic Progressive Party now claims that the party platform clause advocating the establishment of a "Republic of Taiwan" independent from China--the big thorn in cross-straits relations--can be deleted, since the island in reality is already autonomous. That Chen's wing of the DPP is prepared to abandon the clause suggests how the entire issue can be shrunk down to a negotiating point. And in another pointed concession to Beijing, Taiwan's parliament, even though not under DPP control, approved long-bottled-up direct trade, transit and mail links with the mainland for the first time in 50 years. And just this past weekend, Chen proposed that Taiwan steer clear of declaring official independence if in return China offered to forswear invasion plans. This is an offer Beijing should not publicly renounce if it cares at all about world opinion.

Echoing China's restraint, Washington, which had foolishly expressed disapproval of candidate Chen, quickly executed an embarrassed about-face. Immediately after the election, former House International Relations Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton was dispatched to Taipei to smooth things over. And on the mainland, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher worked diplomatic channels in an effort to hold Beijing's hand through this trying period.

At stake for Beijing--and those in America who prefer a better China-U.S. relationship to a tenser one--is congressional passage of the trade bill that would give China permanent normal trading rights with the United States. Prueher and other officials are telling China that the road to its future prosperity runs through Washington and other Western capitals, not through Taipei via invasion. Forced entry would set back China's clock by unraveling all that it has achieved.

Wise old heads like Wang in Shanghai know only too well how true this observation is. Then again, would anyone be utterly astonished if China did invade someday? Certainly not Wang. He has seen such madness from his country before.

Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column runs Wednesdays. E-mail:

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