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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Divisions Multiply in Asia

May 24, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — Early this year, a senior Taiwan official cut through all the endless statements, responses, formulas and threats flying across the Taiwan Straits with a single incisive metaphor.

"It's like bargaining over a Rolex watch," he explained. "In the United States, the price of the watch would be fixed. But of course you know Asia isn't like that.

"So when [Chinese President] Jiang Zemin says that Taiwan must be settled under a formula of 'one country, two systems,' that's like asking for $5,000. When [then-Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui] says China and Taiwan have 'special state-to-state relations,' that's the $2,500 offer. And then we negotiate."

Not so fast. In Shanghai a few weeks later, I tried out this idea on Yang Jiemian, one of the sharpest of China's foreign-policy experts. He wasn't buying; he immediately spotted the problem.

"If one side believes the Rolex is fake, then there's no basis for bargaining," Yang replied.

That's a perfect description of the impasse dividing China and Taiwan right now.

There is a possible negotiation between the two governments over Taiwan's long-term relationship to China. The talks ought to start. But the two sides can't even come to the table, because they can't agree on what they'll be buying or selling.

Taiwan suggests the talks would be about its future. No, China replies, they would be exclusively about Taiwan's future under the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China.

The Chinese government has also been ruining the climate for negotiations by saying, in effect, "Buy my watch, or I'll shoot. In fact, if you even delay too long in making a deal, I'll shoot."

Taiwan's new President Chen Shui-bian was sworn in last weekend in what was apparently the first transfer of power through elections for any culturally Chinese jurisdiction in history.

Since the beginning of this year, Chen has been offering to talk to the mainland about anything, including Beijing's insistence on the principle there is only 'one China.' "

"What exactly does 'one China' mean?" Chen asked in an interview in January. "What are the benefits of 'one China' for the Taiwanese people? Given the opportunity, I would be willing to hear from President Jiang his views on this matter."

Chen made a similar offer in his first post-election interview in March. And he said it again in his inaugural speech Saturday. "We believe that the leaders on both sides possess enough wisdom and creativity to jointly deal with the question of a future 'one China,' " he declared.

To all of these overtures, China has given a stiff-arm.

It has insisted it won't deal with Chen unless he agrees to make a commitment to the principle of "one China" before any talks or negotiations can begin. And Beijing has formally threatened to use force if Taiwan takes too long in making a deal. Buy my watch, or I'll shoot.

China has for years been offering Taiwan a deal that is often called "Hong Kong-plus." Under the formula of "one country, two systems," China would permit Taiwan to keep its own capitalist economic system, as does Hong Kong. China says it would also allow Taiwan to keep its own army, a right Hong Kong doesn't enjoy.

" 'One country, two systems' is the furthest they [Chinese leaders] can go," says Chu Shulong of Beijing's Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, who is close to Chinese military leaders.

Chinese scholars claim the problem is that the "one country, two systems" formula was devised by Jiang's predecessor Deng Xiaoping--and that, in fact, Deng thought up the idea for Taiwan before the concept was ever applied to Hong Kong. Therefore, they suggest, it's impossible for Jiang to drop this approach.

But ultimately, that argument doesn't hold up. If Jiang is truly China's leader, he has to step out on his own. If Jiang wants a Taiwan settlement as his legacy, he has to do something more than stick rigidly to old approaches that are going nowhere.

Inside China today, some intellectuals recognize the need for newer, more creative approaches toward Taiwan.

"If we wait until we have a consensus on what 'one China' means, we can't achieve anything," one mainland scholar admitted privately. "Maybe we should just leave 'one China' as empty words. . . . Economic integration is the best way to solve this problem."

Yang, a scholar at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said China needs to be "flexible and reasonable" in dealing with Taiwan. "The mainland must make concessions because the mainland is much larger and more confident than Taiwan," he said.

So far, the Chinese leadership hasn't budged. However, earlier this year, Yang suggested there was hope for new high-level talks. He predicted that China might send its special emissary Wang Daohan to Taiwan this fall, after Taiwan's new president has a few months to work into the job.

A war would benefit no one. Talks would harm no one. Maybe China and Taiwan won't even agree on whether the Rolex is real or a fake, but they can at least sit down and talk about it. One way or another, it's about time.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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