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Commentary | PACIFIC PROSPECT

In Praise of Advancing the Cause of Peace

President Clinton and the leaders of Taiwan and China are, at some political cost, encouraging world stability.

May 24, 2000|Tom Plate

It's a most improbable trio for peace, to be sure. Yet in the last week, three world leaders have responded in hopeful ways to their grave responsibilities to make the world, especially Asia, a safer place. The first two leaders represent democracies, but the third does not. Yet President Jiang Zemin appears to be trying to work with Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and President Clinton for greater peace and stability. If this admittedly optimistic reading of their three diplomacies is correct, then world politics may be nearing a historic turning point.

The first word of praise goes to Clinton, his integrity battered immeasurably in recent years by everything from arguably silly morals charges to arguably serious campaign-contribution allegations. Yet, over the last two months, he has battled tirelessly and even bravely in this election year on behalf of the China trade bill. This uphill, all-out effort was always the right thing for the president of the United States to support. Never mind the conspicuously self-interested cheerleading of multinational corporations, which turns so many Americans off. A ruler's job is first to enhance the people's peace and security, and every new significant economic or political entanglement we create for China has the potential to bind it ever more firmly into a new world order of peace, international process and political predictability. In fact, the administration's proper push for permanent trading status is not only a politically moral position but, in fact, the only true ethical one.

Yes, that observation will anger Americans understandably offended by China's poor political-rights record. Alas, many regimes, such as U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, perform as poorly as China in this regard. Let us at least grant China overdue recognition of its absolutely extraordinary and unprecedented economic climb out of Mao's misery that has raised more of its people out of poverty more quickly than any government in recorded history. To be able to eat and be clothed is a human right too.

To be sure, Clinton was reluctant to take the high moral ground on the China issue; he wasn't always prepared to fight. In fact, earlier this year, he was even considering cutting and running--or at least downsizing his political exposure. He feared the collateral damage to Vice President Al Gore's chances against Texas Gov. George W. Bush if the administration were to openly fight organized labor, which is largely opposed to the permanent normal trade relations bill. But clearer minds prevailed, especially that of Commerce Secretary William Daley. He steered the president away from one of his patented retreats, and, by March, Clinton was where any worthy U.S. president ought to be on the issue, saying that supporting China's entry "represents the most significant opportunity that we have had to create positive change since the 1970s, when President Nixon first went there."

Leadership sometimes means just saying no to core constituencies, as Clinton has now done. So, too, did Chen Shui-bian. Over the weekend, in his inaugural address, the former advocate of independence for Taiwan took a statesmanlike position. He did not pander to his political party's core constituency that favors a formal, in-your-face separation from Beijing, fearing the disruptive effect on East Asian stability and Taiwan's own security. Instead, in a tremendous, historic speech, Chen pointed across the Taiwan Strait to the Chinese mainland and said: "Under the leadership of Mr. Deng Xiaoping and Mr. Jiang Zemin, the mainland has created a miracle of economic openness." He asked: Why can't the two great Chinese peoples on the mainland and Taiwan somehow work out peacefully "the question of a future 'one China' "? Said the former human-rights lawyer: "The history of the 20th century left us with a major lesson--that war is a failure of humanity. Waged for whatever purpose or whatever imperious reason, war is the greatest harm to freedom, democracy and human rights."

It was an address designed to respect, rather than to insult, Beijing's policy of "one China," yet without selling Taiwan's people down the river. And, so far at least, the carefully crafted effort looks to have worked: China's official reaction, though dutifully critical of Chen's failure to accept the "one China" principle unconditionally, was, by the shrill standards of Beijing's usual line on Taiwan, scarcely shy of subtle praise.

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