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Taiwan Breaks Out of Its Political Shell

By Robert L. DownenRobert L. Downen was special adviser to the assistant secretary of state, East Asia Bureau, from 1984 to January 1989. / October 19, 1989



THE recent agreement between Washington and Taipei to regulate fishing in the north Pacific promises to reduce the incidence of salmon poaching and indiscriminate destruction of marine life by Taiwan's fishing industry. More than that, it augurs well for continuing improvement in the climate of cooperation between the United States and Taiwan. Until recently, unofficial American relations with the island were overshadowed by a range of concerns involving bilateral trade deficits, exchange rates, intellectual-property protection, and an anachronistic system on Taiwan that inhibited political expression and press freedom. But over the past two years dramatic efforts have been made to resolve these problems and to initiate positive reforms.

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Resolution of the salmon-fishing infringement only serves to underscore the encouraging extent of new thinking. This trend, if it prevails in the future, will benefit both US interests and Taiwan's interest on the international scene.

Barely three years ago, Taiwan confronted a broad range of potentially painful adjustments to rapidly evolving domestic and international events. Its political and economic systems, little changed in 40 years, were encountering increasing difficulties. Faced with mounting US consternation over its bilateral trade advantage of nearly $20 billion dollars, and increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, Taiwan took action.

Last year, Taiwan's soaring trade surplus with the US began to reverse course, dropping 26 percent as US exports to the island picked up. This was no quirk of fate. Taipei authorities reacted to strong American representations by reducing tariffs, easing import restrictions, sponsoring new ``buy American'' missions to the US, and allowing their currency to appreciate dramatically against the dollar.

Stimulated in part by congressional passage of the omnibus trade bill, Taipei this year introduced a comprehensive ``action plan'' to address remaining US concerns about import tariffs and non-tariff restrictions. The plan opens its domestic service industry further to US participation, diversifies its export markets, and strengthens protection of the intellectual-property rights of others. The initiative has been well received by Congress and the Bush administration. If Taiwan can succeed in further reducing her surplus with the US by 10 percent each year, the deficit will reach manageable proportions within a very few years.

Beyond its relations with the US, Taiwan has set a new course for interaction in the Asian regional community. In 1988, President Lee Teng-hui announced creation of a foreign-aid program for developing nations which, although modest by US standards, is an exemplary use for part of Taiwan's enormous $75 billion in foreign-exchange reserves.

The newly implemented ``flexible diplomacy'' program for dealing with other governments and multilateral forums is an imaginative gesture outward after years of reclusiveness. Taipei is betting that the global community cannot forever ignore its economic prowess, and the gamble seems likely to benefit both Taiwan and regional development.

Perhaps most dramatic of all has been the range and depth of domestic reform on the island during the past three years.

When the late President Chiang Ching-kuo announced the lifting of martial law on Taiwan just months before his death in January 1988, he set in motion an epochal process of political and social reformation. Liberalization of press freedom and political competition has unleashed a sequence of change that is finally loosening government regulation of the financial community and longtime restrictions on parliamentary membership. Popular pressures for improving labor conditions and environmental quality, among other social concerns, foreshadow a new era for the welfare of Taiwan's citizens.

The democratic political process, still evolving, will receive a major boost this December if free and open elections are successfully conducted for the Legislative Yuan, National Assembly, and city and county councils.

The process is not yet perfected. Taiwan's experiment in change still faces daunting threats both at home and internationally. Two compelling questions are whether Taipei has the forbearance to see proposed political and economic reforms through to their full realization, whatever the consequences; and whether it will have the time, in a historical sense, to implement the scale of change so many would like to see. Will it be permitted that time, or will other factors - domestic or external - intervene to influence the process before it runs its course? Americans can hope that far-sighted leaders in Taipei will be given the full opportunity to help Taiwan achieve its destiny peacefully and at its own pace.