China's divide-and-conquer policy on Taiwan -- playing host to opposition politicians to undermine a campaign for independence by the island nation's president -- is paying early dividends. But the Beijing communists should take President Bush's advice, repeated Thursday, that when dealing with a democracy you eventually have to go through the elected leaders.
Lien Chan, leader of Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party, recently traveled to China for the first meeting between Chinese and Nationalist leaders since the Nationalists lost the civil war and fled to Taiwan in 1949. Beijing is about to host James Soong, leader of another opposition party. The historic visits have prompted Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, to invite China's president to visit Taiwan. No one expects that to happen anytime soon, but Chen's dramatic reversal from his earlier rhetoric on independence is remarkable.
If China and Chen can use the visits of Lien and Soong as bridges to improved relations, that will go far to defuse the tensions Beijing stirred two months ago with its foolish passage of an anti-secession law.
The law formalized China's rock-solid belief that Taiwan is part of China and underlined its willingness to use force to prevent the island's independence. It also prompted alarm beyond Asia that Beijing was getting ready for military action. China has 700 missiles aimed at Taiwan and has increased its military budget dramatically in recent years; the threat presented by the law cannot be taken lightly.
President Bush rightly told Chinese President Hu Jintao on Thursday that dialogue with "the duly elected leader in Taiwan" is the best way to promote stability in the region. That message wasn't new, but China so far has not seemed much in the mood to take the advice: After Chen invited Hu this week to visit Taiwan, Beijing said Chen would first have to recognize that Taiwan is part of China. That may not bother opposition Nationalist Party supporters too much, but many Taiwanese resent the Nationalists. For some, the party -- which ruled Taiwan for decades after Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled across the Taiwan Strait -- is still considered a group of invaders. Too much coziness between the Nationalists and the communists could create a backlash on Taiwan against mainland China.
The United States has pledged to support Taiwan but does not want to hear Chen speak of independence. Nor does Washington want Beijing to threaten military action. China should drop the notion of reunification for now, and Chen should put the independence campaign in mothballs. Both sides can reassure their populations and nervous outsiders, including the U.S., if they emphasize stability and the status quo over inflammatory rhetoric.