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Summit Longshot: Peace With China

* If and when the leaders of the two Koreas meet next month, it could also ease Beijing's fears about U.S. regional intentions.

May 10, 2000|TOM PLATE | Times contributing editor Tom Plate recently returned from a reporting trip to China. E-mail:

It could prove the ultimate East Asian geopolitical bank shot. Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Kim Jong Il of North Korea, who have never met but have a historic summit scheduled for next month, may hold the key to peace not only in Korea but in China.

That's because China has made it very clear that any new missile defense system in East Asia that included the military involvement of Taiwan was unacceptable. Beijing regards Taiwan not as a legitimate government but as an offensive illegal political entity: Its very existence is a continuing affront to the avowed aim of realizing a greater China, which also includes Hong Kong and Macao as well as Tibet. Notwithstanding China's angst, advocates of an ambitious regional missile defense, especially in the American Congress and the Pentagon, point to the need to protect the neighbors of North Korea. This unpredictable, failing Stalinist state owns a few nuclear bombs and has tested a few missiles, including one last year that flew alarmingly right over Japan.

While the North Korean threat should not be minimized, if it could be properly managed and somehow be cooled down, the arguments for a missile-defense system would begin to lose urgency. And cooling North Korea down is precisely what Kim Dae Jung of South Korea has been trying to do. Since his inauguration in 1998, his administration has aggressively advanced a "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North. Kim has virtually staked his presidency on this. Conservatives in the U.S. Congress--and in South Korea--have criticized the effort as naive. Yet in reality there's little alternative to Kim's basic plan other than some sort of military re-tensioning that few wanted. So now that Kim Jong Il has accepted the invitation for the first summit of the two Koreas since the tragic 1953 division of the peninsula, Kim Dae Jung stands to win big time, though North and South negotiators seem to be having a devil of a time simply getting the summit's procedures and agenda onto paper.

There is no doubt that the rest of the region would benefit enormously from a summit, assuming it actually takes place June 12-14, that reduces peninsular tension. A regionwide missile defense system might then begin to look more like a risk than a necessity. China's fear--that the missile shield would be a smoke screen hiding the West's desire to increase military ties with Taiwan--would vanish were the system actually never to be built. Currently, the suspicion of Western ill intent erodes long-range stability in East Asia: A hostile China, if convinced that Japan and the U.S. were conspiring to cook up a Taiwanese separatist plot, would probably throw all caution to the wind and take dead aim at Taiwan. The island's formal independence is the one world development over which the mainland Chinese authorities have said they would go to war. I believe them.

It's probable that Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's president-elect, does too. Next week, in his much-anticipated inauguration speech, this shrewd lawyer and former Taipei mayor will skirt Beijing's demand for outright obeisance to the "one China" concept, but will avoid taunting the mainland tiger in the foolish and risky manner of his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui. The outgoing 73-year-old president absolutely infuriated Beijing by demanding that any cross-strait negotiation be conducted as if Taiwan and China were equivalent states. That costly, wholly unnecessary diplomatic blunder set relations back.

Chen can save the day. Because he represents the party that once advocated independence, a stance from which he has since distanced himself, he could elevate Taiwan diplomacy to a new level of sophistication and world impact. He should forcefully engage his counterparts in Beijing in a vigorous new cross-strait diplomacy that somehow satisfies the latter's desire for theological affirmation of some notion of China someday under one theoretical roof, without selling his people out to the rule of an alien regime. Commented Chinese American leader John Fugh, a retired U.S. Army general, at the annual conference of the Committee of 100, an influential Chinese American public policy group, last weekend in Los Angeles: "A lot will depend on what Chen says May 20."

True enough, but the success of Chen's diplomacy will also depend on the willingness of the People's Republic of China to take the long view and realize there's no way it is going to be able to shoot its way into the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan. Besides, there's no military solution for the Beijing regime that doesn't risk toppling it from power as long as the United States is watching, even cooing, over that cute little baby democracy in Taipei. That's why the smart play for Beijing is to negotiate, negotiate and negotiate some more; otherwise it puts itself behind the eight-ball at the very time South Korea's Kim may be ginning up a more sophisticated Korean dialogue that could spill over onto the rest of the region as the ultimate peace-reinforcing longshot.

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